In times of death and destruction, when so many things familiar to us have come to a crashing halt, Sterling Playmakers offers audiences a soothing balm with their production of the 1971 musical Godspell. An ensemble piece based mainly on the Gospel of Matthew, this musical’s central message is a call for peace, one that this cast shares with the audience in a warm embrace.
This version puts a modern spin on the original, drawing from the 2011 Broadway revival’s new musical arrangements and pop-culture references, many of which were updated to fit the 2020 setting of this production. Some land better than others, as is often the risk with up-to-the-minute cultural and political allusions, and these references decrease in number in the second half of the show. The production ties references to contemporary political and social issues into lessons about disavowing wealth and greed and being kind to our fellow man. Certain bombastic political figures are skewered in the parable about the rich man receiving his just desserts, for example. The cast use both subtle storytelling and over-the-top caricatures to drive their message home.
The tight-knit ensemble cast imbues the songs of Godspell with distinct personalities, such as Kate Clark’s brassy “Turn Back, O Man” or the foot-stompingly dynamic ensemble performance of “Bless the Lord” led by Melanie Kurstin. Noah Hamadé’s Jesus ties all the stories together, both as a constant presence weaving in and out of songs and as the driving force behind the message of peace. While many of the singing performances are strong, some are standouts: Lauren Baker’s mournful “By My Side” is not just vocally powerful, but carries the sadness of the betrayal that is in the works.
Joshua Finger as Judas delivers a beautiful rendition of “On the Willows,” separated from the rest of the cast by a chainlink fence as if trying to distance himself from the devastation he is about to cause. Arista Michelle uses her silky-smooth voice to urge the community to follow Jesus’ teachings in “Day By Day,” while Ashley Williams’ rocking “Learn Your Lessons Well,” simply put, brings the house down.
The fluid storytelling of Godspell necessitates a set neutral enough for the characters to jump in between the stories. Here, the story is told in the city streets, with chainlink fences placed strategically to separate the rest of the cast from the band, and several walls around the stage. It is appropriately bleak for the opening number, which features the cast wearing all black, carrying black-and-white signs showing the names of various philosophers whose ideas the ensemble delivers in the cacophonous “Tower of Babble.”
Director Jim Bowen-Collinson’s choice to evoke the image of masked protests in 2020, however raises more questions than it answers: is this production criticizing the protests themselves as a fruitless discussion that cannot be resolved unless people embrace the lessons of Jesus? This is further supported by the end of the show, when the ensemble reappears bearing colorful signs with messages of “peace,” “love,” and “community.” The protesters appear as a faceless mass of people—is this meant to put every issue being protested last year on the same level, suggesting that the protests themselves are part of the problem? While an evocative image, this staging decision was perhaps not as wise as others, attempting to discuss an incredibly charged societal issue in a forum that was not intended to capture its complexity.
For most of the musical, the tone is entirely different. The cast is a rainbow, each character wearing one bright color—a 21st-century callback to the musical’s hippie roots that brings an exuberance to the musical’s many vignettes. Color also plays a role in one of the show’s most striking images, when Jesus is dying on the cross. Lighting designer Ethan Feil’s blood-red backlighting of Jesus is a 180 after the brightness and warmth of the rest of the show as the life drips out of Jesus’s body, dropping from his hands as red flower petals drifting to the ground.
This is a heartfelt production by a community theater troupe that, like many others, was forced to adapt to circumstances none of us had foreseen. Despite a few hiccups, Sterling Playmakers has brought its production to audiences with a great deal of love.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Godspell presented by Sterling Playmakers performs live one more weekend at 8:00pm August 13 and 14, 2021, and at 2:00 pm on August 14, and 15, at The Theatre at Potomac Falls High School, 46400 Algonkian Parkway, Potomac Falls, VA. Tickets for in-person performances are $20 for general admission and are available at sterlingplaymakers.org or can be purchased at the door.
Streaming performances will be available online from August 11 through September 20, 2021, with household tickets available at sterlingplaymakers.org for $25. More information about this production of Godspell can be found online at sterlingplaymakers.org.
COVID-19 safety protocols will be observed. We follow CDC guidelines and request that for the safety of all patrons, all unvaccinated individuals wear masks. Current detailed guidelines are available here. Additionally, socially distanced seating will be available in parts of the auditorium.
SEE ALSO: Sterling Playmakers to stage ‘Godspell’ for our time in need of healing