“Godspell” may be nearly 45 years old, but this exhilarating new Crown Uptown production proves that it’s anything but stuck in the 1970s. With updated social and cultural references to Justin Bieber (including his recent DUI arrest), Donald Trump, cellphones, texting and the Super Bowl – not to mention giving one of the familiar folk/rock songs an infectious rap treatment – this 1971 musical seems as fresh and on-target as if were newly minted.
Director Matthew Rumsey – with permission and encouragement of the original creators, Stephen Schwartz (music/lyrics) and John-Michael Tebelak (writer) – has preserved the heart and message (love thy neighbor and the Golden Rule) but cloaked it in new trappings to make it relevant and personal to Wichita audiences. In no other production are you likely to hear a riff on “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” or a shout out to hometown star Kirstie Alley.
Overall, this production feels like theater-in-the-round with set designer Michael Downs building the stage up and out into a huge circle (perhaps symbolizing the world) with a bridge directly into the audience. The five-piece band under leadership of Jesse Warkentin is in full view around the back of the circle while the audience surrounds the front.
At first, Downs’ set seems a bit simplistic, but it cleverly includes numerous trap doors in the floor that allow the nine cast members to splash in water or bounce on trampolines like a mini Cirque du Soleil. There are exciting surprises throughout that beautifully enhance the songs and the lively, sometimes cheeky choreography by Maurice Sims.
The almost preternaturally exuberant cast – drawn from Wichita, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Oklahoma and Missouri – proves to be a brilliant ensemble with strong, flexible voices meshed in tight harmonies. The show moves with speed, grace and purpose, and often engages the audience directly. This is intimate, personal theater to feel, not just to watch.
Miles Mattal, native Wichitan and WSU theater and opera student, breathes gentle but compelling life into this playful portrait of Jesus as the peer leader of a traveling troupe that acts out gospel parables, the New Testament “good news.” In most productions, Jesus has been clothed as a clown or a hippie; here (thanks to rethinking by costumer Dora Arbuckle), he is a casual everyman in white T-shirt and unbuttoned baseball shirt. (In a clever nod to past productions, while Jesus is getting dressed, he bypasses the Superman logo shirt and hippie togs in his closet).
Playing opposite him in the dual role of Judas/John the Baptist is Ryan Ehresman, a Sterling College theater grad who was recently seen in “Hairspray” and “Cabaret.” Ehresman, dressed in black jeans and black-and-red drum major coat, plays Judas as a driven, impatient idealist who pushes Jesus for less talk and more action.
Mattal unleashes a clear and powerful voice with a poignant urgency for ballads like “Save the People” and “Beautiful City.” Opening night, however, in the angry, anguished “Alas for You,” Mattal’s voice seemed overwhelmed by a too-loud accompaniment (which might have been a microphone glitch rather than sound imbalance).
Ehresman, whose voice seemed a bit tight when he first launched into the challenging “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” quickly got the juices flowing. His soft-shoe vaudeville duet with Jesus – “All for the Best” – is a high-spirited comic highlight. And his soulful lament “On the Willows” after he has betrayed Jesus is heartbreakingly lovely.
The other seven cast members, who each get a solo turn, are clad by Arbuckle in Goodwill Store layers that bespeak personalities from frilly Bo Peep (lace/pastels) to “Les Miz” freedom fighter (beret/bustier) to a country Magnum P.I. (Hawaiian shirt/bib overalls). They are strong-voiced, well-matched and fun to watch as they rise to their moment, from Joseph Boover’s “Light of the World” (he’s also a hilarious whiz at wild accents and celebrity voices) to Ashley Lauren’s sexy “Turn Back, O Man” to Alexis Morris’ lovely “Day by Day” to Marisha Castle’s haunting “By My Side” to Ben Cramer’s insistent “We Beseech Thee.”
But Injoy Fountain and Austin Stang, particularly, catch the eye and ear. Fountain, a Wichita native who now performs and lives in New York, has the dynamic voice and presence of a diva. Stang, who performed in the national tour of “Les Miserables” and who has now done 10 shows for Crown, has a flawless upper register. When the two opened Act II with a seemingly impromptu jam with pianist Warkentin for “Learn Your Lessons Well,” you’d swear you were in the presence of Kurt and Mercedes from “Glee.”