“Godspell,” the show that was once controversial for portraying Jesus and his followers as hippies or clowns, may be nearly 45 years old, but Matthew Rumsey said he is finding ways to reinvent the now-classic folk/rock musical.
“Everybody has seen a version of it over the years, whether on stage or the (1972) film, but the show has been allowed to change in exciting ways with each revival to keep it new and fresh,” said Rumsey, director for the new production that opens Friday at Crown Uptown Theatre.
“We have scripts and scores from the 1971 original and the 2001 and 2011 Broadway revivals from which to make this version our own. We are going back to the original prologue for the ‘Tower of Babel’ about competing philosophies that was dropped in recent revivals,” Rumsey said. “And we are using all of the familiar music.”
That means including a song written specifically for the movie, “Beautiful City,” and “By My Side,” which was written by students for a workshop version at Carnegie Mellon University. Among enduring favorites are such songs as “Day By Day,” “Turn Back, O Man,” “O Bless the Lord,” “Light of the World” and the hauntingly lovely “On the Willows.”
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The show began as a master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon by John-Michael Tebelak with music from the Episcopal Hymnal. Angela Lansbury’s brother saw it, wanted to stage it Off-Broadway and brought in composer Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Wicked”) to write new music, ranging from pop to folk to rock, gospel and even a little soft-shoe vaudeville. “Godspell” opened in 1971, and has become a staple for revivals, tours and local stages ever since for its simplicity and message.
“I love the music and it has a great message about love. It’s not just about the Bible, it’s about coming together as a community of people,” Rumsey said. “It’s absolutely relevant to what’s going on today, particularly with the new Pope Francis and his message about loving and supporting everyone rather than judging. A lot of churches are getting back to that mission of inclusion.”
Rumsey said the Crown Uptown version won’t involve hippies or clowns cavorting in a stark urban playground – the most familiar past image. Rather, the cast will be individually dressed by costumer Dora Arbuckle to suit their personalities. Jesus, for example, is in a sports jersey and khaki shorts while Judas is in black jeans with a black-and-red coat. Their followers will range from casual to punk as ordinary folks.
“Some of them might attract attention walking down the streets of Wichita, but nobody would notice them in New York City,” Rumsey said with a chuckle.
The stage has been extended and built-up by scenic designer Michael Downs for a set that allows characters and props to pop in and out in surprising ways, the director said. The Crown Uptown band, under music director Jesse Warkentin, will be on stage in full view of the audience. Indeed, Warkentin, seated at the piano center stage, will interact as one of the characters.
Playing Jesus is Miles Mattal, a Wichita State opera/musical theater junior now on break from school who has appeared with Music Theatre and Mosley Street Melodrama. Playing the dual role of Judas/John the Baptist is Ryan Ehresman, a Sterling College grad who in the past year was in Crown Uptown’s “Hairspray,” Forum Theatre’s “Cabaret” and Prairie Pines’ “A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol.”
Others in the cast as Jesus’ community of followers are Joe Boover, Marisha Castle, Ben Cramer, Injoy Fountain, Ashley Lauren, Alexis Morris and Austin Stang.
“I like how basically joyful he is, even though he knows he won’t be able to do everything he wants,” Mattal said about his role of Jesus. “He is a leader who has the respect of his followers. He is somebody that you want to be with, even though he does have a bit of a temper. That is his human failing.”
Mattal has appeared in “Godspell” before at Wichita Children’s Theatre & Dance Center” as Herb, the one follower who doesn’t have a song but who is known for his comic one-liners. He said he’s not intimidated to be moved up to the role of Jesus for this production.
“The way I approach it is to show the human side of Jesus. He is the Son of God but he is also human to connect with people,” Mattal said. “This is the most powerful show I’ve ever been connected with, from the emotions you feel yourself to the audience reactions.”
Ehresman, who plays Judas, said he sees his character not as a villain but as a good guy who eventually makes poor choices.
“Judas is strong-willed and determined – even driven – because he knows what he wants. I can relate to that on a personal level,” Ehresman said. “He has great traits, but he ends up making bad choices. Jesus and Judas are essentially best friends at the beginning, and the hard part for me is how he gets to the point of betrayal.”
Ehrsman played Judas/John the Baptist previously at Sterling College, but he said the Crown Uptown production will be different enough that he feels like he’s almost going into the show the first time.
“I’m only a little ahead by already knowing the songs that I sing (“Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” “All for the Best” duet with Jesus and “On the Willows”). But I’m still experimenting, still getting to know this Judas, who really likes Jesus’ message but wants him to be less of a story-teller and more of a militant. He wants less talk and more action.”
Injoy Fountain, a Wichita native and a 2010 graduate of New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy, who has been living and performing in NYC for five years, will return to make her Crown Uptown debut as the company member named Lindsay.
“I see my character as a powerhouse singer who just loves love, who loves to spread love around,” said Fountain, whose songs include “O Bless the Lord (O My Soul)” and “Learn Your Lessons Well.”
Fountain, who attended Collegiate and East High, has appeared with Music Theatre of Wichita in “The Music Man,” “Aida” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Regionally, she has appeared in “Rent” and “Hair” and was in the pre-Broadway tryout of “Fat Camp.” Currently in New York, she is singing in a group called Condola and the Stoopkids with Tony nominee Condola Rashad. Their first album was released this month.
“I haven’t done ‘Godspell’ before. I hadn’t even seen it on stage. But when they revived it in New York, I participated in a flash mob for the song, ‘Day By Day.’ It was so much fun I wanted to do the show. Honestly, the music is what drew me to it. It’s still very popular,” Fountain said. “The show may be Old School, but it isn’t dated because each production can be revamped to fit the times. We are bringing a new vibe.”