Sock It To Me, Jesus: “Godspell” at the Winspear

As I hustled out of the Winspear Opera House61Bw93peafL

…while the Dallas audience gave its customary, if somewhat tepid, standing ovation to the Lexus Broadway Series touring production of Stephen Schwartz’s early 1970’s musical “Godspell”, based on the Gospel of Matthew, two thoughts came to mind. The first: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and the second: “third rate theatre will always be third rate, no matter how flashily it’s packaged.” I missed earlier major tours of this show and never saw the film version. Theatre colleagues portrayed it to me as a sort of wannabe “Hair” meets “Jesus Christ Superstar” without as compelling music, story or characters.  Judging from what I saw opening night, they were right. Lots of bright colors and spectacle. Bright colors, spectacle.

This tour version features inserted patter dialogue intended to make the show relevant for today’s audience. References include: Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and his hair, Lindsay Lohan, Steve Jobs and iPads, Darth Vader, a request for a birth certificate and cheesy, pandering nods to the Dallas Cowboys and Mavericks. Done to death? Combine all that stuff with hippy-dippy, flower child-style songs and choreography that grows out of the touchy-feely “trust” theatre exercises college drama professors insisted upon back in the 70’s; end up with a smug, incoherent mish-mash of performance styles and cultural non sequiturs and a parable format. The show, itself, may have started out as art; this version seems all about making money. A short rappy, hip hoppish bit gets popped into Act One, performed by the ten-person ensemble with only one African-American member. Wish I’d witnessed a faithful recreation of the original “Godspell” with clown face, to comprehend its original appeal and understand its place in the canon of musical theatre.

At least it gives some talented young artists (and a few musicians) a decent living in between barista gigs at Starbucks and a national credit on their resumes. The ensemble works efficiently together and displays real talent, in both vocal and physical aspects. Michael De Rose powers up the show with his deep well of audience-pleasing energy and talent as both singer and dancer. Jake Stern makes a believable, handsome (but not too sexy) Jesus with a gentle, pure energy and mellifluous voice. His brief demonstration of soft shoe dance technique adds a humorous, theatrical perspective to his character. Ivan Lo, with his lead on “All Good Gifts”, demonstrates the finest singing in the show; his voice comes through clear as a bell on all musical numbers. The women tend to get drowned out singing under the band, with Alessia Lupiano’s number with Jesus “Turn Back, O Man” and Stacey Kay’s “Bless the Lord” the best defined exceptions. The program says John Yun conducts the five-piece band and plays keyboards; opening night Yun played a clunky upright piano, which seemed out of place and did not provide rock “tone”.

 I can now say I’ve seen a colorful, fast-paced “Godspell”. You can, too, before it heads to hippie heaven after March 2, 2014. Tickets: www.attpac.org, 214.880.0202

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