A nearly flawless ‘Godspell,’ updated at WBT

Published: Friday, July 17, 2015 By: John P. McCarthy Source: The Journal News

Watching Westchester Broadway Theatre’s nearly flawless revival of “Godspell,” I was struck by how closely the rock opera hews to its New Testament sources, mainly the gospel of St. Matthew. I had forgotten that almost everything in it is taken from scripture parables — other than Stephen Schwartz’s sweet music and lyrics, of course.

This might suggest “Godspell” is too religious or sectarian, that its message is naïve, or that aesthetically it’s dated, stuck in the flower-power era of the early ‘70s when it was created. Naturally, it’s a matter of opinion (and the best advice is to go and judge for oneself) but these fears are unfounded.

There’s no avoiding the Christology in “Godspell”; it’s about the teachings of Jesus. Yet it’s hard to see how anyone — whatever his or her religious beliefs, or lack thereof — could be offended by the ethical maxims emphasized.

As to whether it’s Pollyannaish, there’s plenty of transgression, including the most famous betrayal in human history, which leads to a crucifixion. In a way, “Godspell” dares you to be cynical about its upbeat, touchy-feely vibe so that it can break down your skepticism.

It appears certain to stand the test of time due to its terrific score, universal themes, and its streamlined, approachable book. Another reason it seems relevant is that WBT is presenting a version that was updated for the show’s 2011 Broadway revival, which was directed by Mamaroneck native Daniel Goldstein. The revisions consist mainly of some new lyrics penned by composer Schwartz (“Pippin” and “Wicked”).

Director and choreographer John Fanelli has also added many witty asides and timely allusions — references to Obamacare, Donald Trump, and the Kardashians, plus mentions of pop-culture touchstones like “The Lion King” and “Forest Gump” and societal phenomena such as video gaming.

The practical challenges of staging a show that might seem too intimate for the relatively large venue, where distractions abound, are well met. The production feels loose, nimble and spontaneous.

It’s a pity the orchestra isn’t on stage or at least nearby in the wings or pit. Playing remotely somewhere in the building, but the musicians sound good. And having cast members play instruments on stage during several numbers heightens the immediacy.

There are no weak links in the troupe. Equally divided by gender, the ten performers project youthful vigor and optimism without coming off as smarmy or cloyingly beatnik. They also do an uncanny job of generating sound effects with their voices.

Gilbert Sanchez is a clean-cut, angelic-sounding Jesus. With a red heart painted on his forehead, the handsome actor exudes a gentle charisma during Act One. When required to display anger and pathos in Act Two, he appears appropriately threatening and even radical. Xander Chauncey provides excellent counterpoint as John the Baptist and Judas.
 

The singing is strong across the board, with the ensemble providing otherworldly harmonization on many songs. During “By My Side,” Devon Perry augments her vocal talents with virtuosic piano playing. Sarah Smithton leads a sparkly version of the catchy hit “Day by Day.” One general quibble: At times it’s difficult to make out some of the words, sung and spoken.

The inner-city set conceived by Steven Loftus features a subway car whose doors are used for entrances and whose windows are lit in rich primary colors. A rectangle of chain link fence and a length of pipe serve brilliantly as a cross during the chill-inducing climax. Matthew Hemesath’s costumes put a contemporary twist on psychedelic fashion.

A blast of love, peace and good karma, WBT’s “Godspell” leaves little room for doubt about one thing: There’s no better symbol for resurrection than a curtain call