The house was packed on Sunday when I finally made it to see Sandy Spring Theatre Group’s production of Godspell. As I slid into one of the few remaining seats in the back row, a little girl next to me — decked out in a glittery party dress — squealed in anticipation. The lights dimmed and the show commenced. The audience was one of the most enthusiastic I have ever seen at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn and I wondered why.
Perhaps it was the score. Stephen Schwartz’s music for Godspell was groundbreaking when it hit the scene in 1971, becoming one of the few Broadway musicals to break through to a wider, mainstream audience. Fifty years later, that score still inspires. Beloved songs like “Day by Day,” “Light of the World,” “On the Willows,” and others comprise one of the most singable scores in theater history.
Or perhaps the crowd was energized because word had gotten out that this production, helmed by Director Robert Leembruggen, has enough heart and soul to warm the cockles of heathens and cynics. With colorful homespun costumes, earnest performances, and ensemble-enriching choreography (by Stephanie Wesley), this is the little production that could. It’s also one of the best community theater shows I have seen so far this year.
The ensemble cast deserves uniform praise for their dedication to the material. Godspell is truly an ensemble show, and this cast really seemed to be having fun and working as a team. There is no real plot to Godspell, or if there is, it is a very loose plot. Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, Godspell is basically Jesus sharing a series of Biblical parables with his followers in between fun songs. All the greatest hits of the New Testament are there: Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, the meek shall inherit. They are stories that most of us are familiar with, stripped of their Biblical righteousness and told with a folksy candor reminiscent of the 1970s era in which the show was written.
As Jesus, Joe Waeyaert carries a lot of the weight of the show. His Jesus is tender and welcoming. His vocals are more than adequate on solos like “Save the People” and “Alas for You.” He lends gravitas to the show’s emotional finale. I do think there is room for Waeyaert to convey more charisma, and I would love to see him impart more energy to the role. He is Jesus, after all. No one can complain if he takes more than his share of the spotlight.
In the dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas, Zack Walsh starts the show off strong with a resounding solo sung from the back of the auditorium: “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord).” He exudes tenderness in “On the Willows” (along with soloists Alex Greenberg and Stephanie Wesley). Walsh and Waeyaert team up for an exceptionally fun “All for the Best,” a vaudeville-like number featuring fast-sung dueling melodies.
The rest of the ensemble cast each gets a turn in the spotlight. Standouts include Tracy Davidson’s easy high note in “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul,” Gifty Amponsem’s jazzy contributions to “Light of the World,” and Alex Greenberg’s sultry rendition of “Turn Back, O Man.” Other songs featured solos by Jill Goodrich (“Day by Day”), David Robinson and Kellie Santos-DeJesus (“All Good Gifts”), and Douglas Richesson (“We Beseech Thee”).
The score is played by a live band (hooray for a live band!) that performs onstage behind a screen lending a rock feel and an extra sense of pizzazz to the production. Arielle Bayer conducted and played piano and was joined by Meagan Frame on bass, Kevin Uleck on percussion, and Chip Carvel on guitar.
The set is simple yet functional. Square boxes are blended into the choreography of several songs allowing the actors to move them around into various configurations that give the stage an active feel without appearing crowded. Two ladders onstage add a vertical element to the staging and double as a jail cell during one of Jesus’s parables.
Easter is around the corner, and DC theaters are clearly embracing the spirit of the season. The 50th-anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar is now playing at the Kennedy Center, Olney Theatre is producing the world premiere of A.D. 16, a musical about teenage Jesus and Mary Magdalen that is off-the-charts good. A tip of the hat to Sandy Spring Theatre Group for completing this holy trinity with its stellar production of Godspell.
Running Time: 90 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission.
Sandy Spring Theatre Group’s Godspell plays weekends through March 20, 2022, at the Kentlands Arts Barn – 311 Kent Square Road, in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets ($20–$24), call (301) 258-6394 or go online.
COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination and masks are required to attend indoor performances at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn.
Jesus: Joe Waeyaert
John the Baptist/Judas: Zack Walsh (For more Zack Walsh antics, check out Zack’s The Brady Bros podcast)
Doug: Douglas Richesson
Tracy: Tracy Davidson
Alex: Alex Greenberg
David: David Robinson
Gifty: Gifty Amponsem
Jill: Jill Goodrich
Stephanie: Stephanie Wesley
Kellie: Kellie Santos-DeJesus
Trish: Trish Pisarra
Artistic and Production Team
Producer: Meredith Fogle
Director: Robert Leembruggen
Assistant Director, Choreographer: Stephanie Wesley
Stage Manager: Dianne Koval
Technical Director: Jerry Callistein
Scenic Artist: Lily Pacuit
Graphics Design: Alex Greenberg
Costumes: Hilary Glass Leyendecker
Properties, Set Dressing, Makeup: Sarah Leembruggen
Lighting Designer: Steve Deming
Conductor/Piano: Arielle Bayer
Bass: Meagan Frame
Percussion: Kevin Uleck
Guitar: Chip Carvel