When the musical "Godspell" by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz first appeared off-Broadway in 1971 it was a huge success. The re-invention of the gospel story of the Christ as told by ordinary young people made everything fresh and relevant. It has had countless revivals ever since, but this Taproot production, directed by the amazing Karen Lund, is not a revival. It is a pure and joyous re-invention. By setting the story at Pike Place Market and populating the cast with exactly the sort of young people you would expect to find there it reinforces that the gospel is intended for an audience of ordinary people in search of a divinity they could not imagine before the story begins. This talented and balanced cast brings enormous enthusiasm to their personalized re-telling of the gospel of Jesus, and each of them is filled with a divine light and blessing that is not of this world, but rather a gift to this world.
I was especially impressed with Mike Spee as Jesus. Rather than making him a superhuman, transcendent being who was the embodiment of God on earth, he played Jesus as a familiar, modest and loving human being, a regular guy, who was not the human face of divinity, but simply the carrier of the great message of divinity, that we may each be blessed with salvation if we truly believe. Ryan Childers was equally effective as John the Baptist, serving as a natural leader but not any more special than any of the others. And what a terrific cast of "others".
Both the wonderfully talented Sara Porkalob and the lovably funny Asha Stichter carried a good bit of the everyday comedy, but Katherine Jett, Jessi Little and Bethanie Russell were equally important in telling the story. That was critical to the success of this production because it only worked because everyone on stage delivered that story in their own, personal way. Tyler Todd Kimmel, Simon Pringle and Daniel Stoltenberg played a variety of characters with great clarity and plenty of familiarity. Everyone on stage felt like someone we know, and that was critical to making the story both theirs, and ours.
I don't want to go too much into the enormous invention that was brought to this particular production, except to say that every choice made the entire story feel fresh, contemporary and relevant. A good deal of the joy that any audience will feel from watching this show is the freshness and discovery of this new telling. Although the script sticks pretty closely to the gospel, having it performed by the cast of the Muppet show makes it feel about as immediate as kicking back on your couch. The same is true for all the parables, the enactment of the crucifixion and resurrection, and all the other story points in this world-changing narrative of a life like no other, and a gift to humanity like no other. Most surprising, there is very little that feels preachy in this story, at the same time that we are constantly aware that these events have changed the lives of everyone on stage in front of us, and could do the same for us, as well.
Edd Key's excellent musical direction uses all of these talented voices to great advantage and manages to make every song feel spontaneous, heartfelt and genuine. The physical production, with a brilliant set by Mark Lund, appropriate costumes by Nanette Acosta and fine Lighting by Andrew Duff was always in the service of the actors. This is a story about human beings past and present, and that reality is at the center of what makes this whole show work.
I walked out of this show almost literally bounding up and down. That's quite a surprise for a show I've seen many, many times and thought I knew exactly what to expect. I was so, so wrong. If you've never seen "Godspell" let this be your first encounter and if, like me, you've seen it many times before let this be an exhilarating new discovery. The audience was on its feet at the end of this show, and I felt like I was the first one to stand up. This is not a successful revival of a familiar and well-loved show. It is a brand new experience of a bold new telling of a story we may all know, but that we have never heard quite like this before.
PICTURED ABOVE: Tyler Todd Kimmel, Bethanie Russell, Jessi Little, Mike Spee, Ryan Childers, Daniel Stoltenberg, Michael James Adams, Simon Pringle, Katherine Jett and Asha Stichter in Godspell at Taproot Theatre.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhuag.