I’d like to think that I’m selective with what shows move me to tears. To the best of my remembrance, I’ve only cried during three shows: the University of Alabama’s “Saint Joan” and “Hair,” and now, Theatre Tuscaloosa’s “Godspell.”
What’s interesting is how similar “Hair” and “Godspell” are. Neither has much of a plot, per se, being more of a shared experience between this family-esque group onstage and the audience, though story does crop up at times. Both shows that I saw share two actors, also. So they get the dubious honor of making me cry twice.
“Godspell,” which has four more shows before the end of the run, is a musical by Stephen Schwartz, who also wrote “Seussical” and “A Man of No Importance.” The show is based on the Gospel according to Matthew. As such, Christianity and, more importantly, the philosophies behind the religion are extremely heavily represented throughout the show. If you’ve grown up in church like I have most, if not all, of the stories will be familiar. Even those unfamiliar with Christianity will likely catch onto a few things here and there. But this show is nothing like your average sermon.
In one of the best, most purely ensemble shows I’ve ever seen (to be fair, I think “Hair” is the only other show that even fits that description), only two of the actors represent any characters outside of the prologue. In the prologue, eight of the 10 actors are onstage in school uniforms, sitting at desks. They each sing phrases from specific philosophers and great thinkers, setting the more philosophical tone of the show. After hearing Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Frederic Nietzsche, Jeal-Paul Sartre and Buckminster Fuller, John the Baptist (Gerard L. Jones, doubles as Judas) appears, singing “Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord).” And the show begins in earnest.
The group becomes baptized by John the Baptist. He then talks of the one that will come after him and Jesus (Will Erwin) arrives to be baptized as well. After that’s done, the group returns wearing bright, haphazard colors and clothes, some having done crazy things to their hair, and the teachings of Christ start. The group, akin to the Disciples, acts out and clown around, playing with a huge slide on stage and one another, each one telling different parables while Jesus guides them through the journey, pointing out the lessons as needed.
Those Disciples, as I’ll call them, are played by a fabulously talented and extremely coherent group of young people. They are Eryn Davis, Alex Hawkins, Zacchaeus Kimbrell, Justin Barnett, Diva Clarithyea-LaShaun Hall, Natalie Riegel, Norquina “Q” Rieves and Craig First. They play themselves in the show with no real devotion to a specific named character. They are simply themselves, playing and portraying parables, interacting with one another.
After the fun and humor of the first act, however, the show slides into the emotional heavy hitter. As this does follow the Book of Matthew, I can go ahead and tell you it’s very similar in tone. The first half or two thirds is teaching and parables, education. The last portion is about Christ’s fall, Judas’ betrayal and the crucifixion. And the actors are so fully dedicated to what they grow to be during the show, a quirky family all lovingly devoted to Jesus, that the emotions run very powerfully. Even Judas, portrayed quite sympathetically in the show, truly loves Jesus and seems disgusted with himself for what happens.
The voices in this cast are incredible. They are all so powerful and good at what they do. I saw the matinee show today, which was their second show of the day having done a morning school show. On top of that, at least one or two of the actors has informed me that they’ve been fighting illness. Frankly, today’s performance made me wonder if they were lying to me, because everyone sang beautifully. In a show like this, it’s hard to pinpoint any specific individuals that were “better,” because they all do so well and most songs are heavily ensembled. However, several solos did stand out, including Davis’ “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul,” Hawkins’ “Learn Your Lessons Well,” Kimbrell’s “We Beseech Thee” and Riegel and Hall’s powerful, highly emotional duet “By My Side.” Also, pretty much any time Erwin or Jones had a solo was a fierce song to be heard. The finale, with Christ crucified and singing in a call and response to the Disciples about how he’s dying, was the killer that really hit me right in the feels. Not just because of the subject, but because of the openness and full devotion the actors had to what was happening on stage, and to the beauty of their voices combined.
The set is fantastic, a grafitti-covered concrete wall, broken down at parts, with stairs leading to a massive upper platform and a slide coming down. The set, combined with the lighting, is a powerful addition to the show, perfectly accentuating which parts are joyous and happy and which begin to see the falling into darkness. The designers, Erin C. Hisey for lights and Wheeler Kincaid for set, have done some of the best work I’ve seen of their for this show, I think. The costume designer Jeanette Waterman should be commended, too, for coming up with such wacky, playful and yet appropriate costumes to a show that could easily be adversely affected by the wrong choices of costume. But a big hand goes to the director and choreographer Abe Reybold. I was fortunate enough to experience his directing and choreography on the night of the auditions, and I really wish I had been able to experience more of it, because everything turned out fantastic and I know he was a treat to work with.
Theatre Tuscaloosa’s “Godspell” is in the Bean-Brown Theatre at Shelton State Community College. The show runs at 7:30 p.m. from Thursday to Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $22 for adults, $18 for seniors and military and $14 for students and children. I strongly, STRONGLY encourage you to go watch this show if you’re in Tuscaloosa. It is simply fantastic. A great time and an amazing theatrical experience.