The lights fade, the stage is dark. Through the shadows a voice booms “Ye snakes and vipers brew!” The lights begin to rise revealing and urban landscape. Blacktop masks the stage floor, construction equipment, trashcans and no trespassing signs complete the atmosphere. Then through the darkness comes Jesus Christ wearing a pair of American flag boxer shorts.
Godspell is the latest musical to arrive at Kelsey Theatre. The show is a retelling of the biblical Gospel of Mathew as a musical with color and pop-culture references thrown in. The Kelsey production starred Thomas Coppolecchia as Jesus and Mike Schiumo as Judas. Originally premiering Off-Broadway in 1971, the musical was written by John Michael Tebelak with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.
Godspell was a great performance. The choreography, singing and acting were highly refined. The modern pop-culture references added new flavor to a 38-year-old musical. Besides the two leading roles, all the characters played on each other’s strengths, which made the dialogue more believable, but at the same time no one actor stood out.
The Kelsey Theatre production differed slightly from the original production by adding its own interpretations and flavors to create a unique spin on a well-known performance. Rather than Jesus Christ appearing as a clown leading apostles like a company of circus performers; Jesus appears as more of a pop-culture superhero, wearing a superman t-shirt and spreading the gospel mixed with references to Law & Order and hip-hop music.
The first act is lighthearted, blending the shows classic tunes with hip-hop, blues, funk, and rock music. The second act takes a much darker and more serious tone. Jesus is forced to face those who doubt him. He begins to see what the world around him and the people he is trying to save truly value. To play up the visual differences, Judas, the apostle who betrays Jesus, appears wearing a blood red scarf and a batman t-shirt. Even the music style changes from the first act to the second. Solos no longer try to be light-hearted but carry a deep feeling of sadness foreshadowing events to come. The act climaxes with the last supper scene and Jesus telling Judas that he should “Do quickly what you must.” Judas blows a whistle, and Jesus is strapped to an electric fence where he is killed. The scene ends with the apostles carrying the body of Jesus off the stage.
While the cast does a good job interacting with each other and the audience, the performance might not have been for everyone. Obviously people who do not enjoy religious or Christian themed musicals would not be interested. Another issue is the pop-culture references; the costumes in colorful adaptations of hip-hop, punk rock, and rave culture, along with urban dialog, might have alienated some of the older or more conservative viewers. “I saw this play 20 years ago, they definitely went out on a limb, but this is a radical representation of what I first saw. I think if this performance was to come to the Theatre again I would pass on it,” said one older audience member after the show.
Younger ticket holders, however, seemed to identify with the cast and their references. They reacted to the audience participation, character interaction, and humanity. “The actors build a rapport with the audience. Every character stands on their own, playing on each others’ strengths,” said Dorothy Adam, a Kelsey Theatre patron. “We were amazed by the great singing voices and acting. This is an amazingly talented group. It was catching from the first time that Jesus appears in his boxers,” said Melanie and Phil Wood, two younger patrons returning to Kelsey Theatre for their second time.