Arts Editor Riva Weinstein attended the Friday night performance of CMTS’ Godspell, directed by Hope Johnson (BC ’21), an 80’s-inspired retelling of the Gospel of Matthew. She gives her thoughts below.
I walked into CMTS’ Godspell on Friday knowing this much: that there’s at least one more upbeat rock musical about the crucifixion of Jesus than I thought there was.
Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s 1971 musical Godspell takes a less narrative and more scripture-based approach to the story of Jesus. It was revived in 2011. When the show landed in the Glicker-Milstein this weekend, it had a funk around it that smelled of the late 80’s – keyboard synth, funky dance moves, and denim jackets abound.
The ensemble begins the show with Prologue, an unsteady and discordant number leaning heavily on the keyboard. Jesus’ arrival is heralded by John the Baptist (Wesley Schmidt, CC ’22) with a shofar – and also by the electric guitar, which pulls the cast’s voices together in joyful harmony. Jesus (Jacob Iglitzin, CC ’19) begins to teach his new followers. From that moment forward, they sing together as a community and are tested as one.
There are precisely three plot events: Jesus’ baptism, Judas’ betrayal, and the crucifixion. The rest of the musical is taken up by sermons and parables, as explained by Jesus and acted out or sung by ensemble members. As dictated by the script, the eight ensemble members use their actors’ real names.
The show depends heavily on performances: to fill the 2-and-a-half hour runtime with song and dance, to cut the preachiness of the text, and to keep the audience’s attention from flagging despite the relative lack of character and plot. Godspell‘s actors pulled off this task with spectacular verve and energy, somehow turning a play based on the freakin’ Book of Matthew into one of, if not the funniest show I have yet to see at Columbia.
They sing, leap off platforms, imitate sheep, tap-dance and shimmy, and play a memorable game of Charades with audience members. They embody the affected hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the kindness of the Samaritan, and the desperation of the prodigal son with no less earnest commitment than if they were hearing the story for the first time. It’s no wonder there were water bottles littered around the stage for the actors’ convenience: with almost every cast member remaining onstage for the duration of the show, it’s a miracle they were still standing at the end, let alone singing.
Every member of the Godspell cast was excellent, with a particularly impressive crop of freshman and sophomore talent. Wesley Schmidt, who played both John the Baptist and Judas, filled the room with his resonant, cello-like voice. Stephanie Leibowitz (BC ’22) showed off both an infectious energy and a dizzying range. I doubt if I will ever witness a funnier theatrical moment than Joel Meyers (CC ’21) angrily doing the worm during the parable of the prodigal son.
Jacob Iglitzin has impressed me before with his emotional range and singing, but I felt that Jesus was not the ideal role for him. Jesus’ portrayal in the text sticks closely to the canonical Gospels, and Iglitzin played Jesus straight as a wise, understanding teacher, hitting notes of righteous anger and sadness at the appropriate measures. That’s fine for scripture, but not very interesting as a musical protagonist. A more complicated role like Judas – perhaps one that stuck to a lower vocal register, where Iglitzin’s voice is stronger – would have served the actor better.
The choreography was perfectly suited to the show. Fresh, joyful, and slightly disorganized full-ensemble numbers relied upon the joy of mass movement to make them satisfying, rather than individual, technical perfection. They’re highly enjoyable, so long as you keep in mind a counterculture hippie commune and not a Christian summer camp youth mass.
Sadly, the direction was not entirely able to rescue the show from the increasing preachiness of its second act. No matter how many Jews you cram into the cast (and if the Jewdar I inherited from my mother is right, it was quite a few), Godspell is still more of an extended sermon than a play.
The over-the-top 80’s/90’s costume design was great fun to look at, cutting through the saccharine spirituality with funky-fresh overalls, sequined skirts, and one, highly memorable pigeon shirt. They visually tied together the ensemble while preserving their individuality. If costume designer Ilana Lupkin (BC ’20) doesn’t make me one of those denim jackets with an Adam & Eve patch like Judas wears, I will personally no longer be friends with her.
Raina Liu’s (CC ’22) set design was also effective, with brick walls, chicken wire and hand-painted street signs setting the show in a kind of early 90’s urban comedy. But the lighting design was in need of some improvement. It remained neutral for most of the play, and the heavy-handed application of red gels to indicate Hell, and Judas threatening Jesus, did nothing to deepen the narrative.
Godspell advertised itself as being a play about community, and in that respect, it was better put on at a college campus than on a Broadway stage. The “disciples” spill over into the actors, and the actors spill into reality. The use of real names and a few added references (“Occupy Barnard! Occupy Columbia!”) grounded the play in the very spot it was. Starting with the feeling of infectious joy, traveling through the actors, and spreading out through their relationships with audience members, a network of warmth spread itself buoyantly through the people packed into the small theater. Godspell did what it promised to do. It was only the slightest bit unnerving that through this network came a sentiment of religious proselytizing, a bizarre photobooth of “This is how you would look next to Jesus.”
Godspell was an unusual choice for a Columbia musical. Still, they pulled it off with no shortage of style, talent, and genuine heart. It’s certainly one of the best things I’ve seen from CMTS in my years here, and I’d download the cast album in a heartbeat.
But next year, maybe try Jesus Christ Superstar.
Godspell’s final performance is tonight, March 9 at 8:00 PM in the Glicker-Milstein Theater. Come early to get off the waitlist.
Image via Riva Weinstein