Sirens wail and screech, nuclear bombs explode and the people are absolutely miserable. The opening for Robert E. Lee High School’s post-apocalyptic portrayal of “Godspell” exudes a feeling of a world that has turned to a much more ominous era.
“Godspell” explores the themes in the Gospel According to St. Matthew through the philosophies of playwright John-Michael Tebelak. The musical score by Stephan Schwartz carries the audience through the teachings of Jesus with dynamic songs like “We Beseech Thee,” “Light of the World” and the renowned “Day By Day.” Using sounds and styles from the 1970s, Tebelak and Schwartz experimented with the content of the New Testament and created a musical masterpiece that ran 527 performances on Broadway.
The play was taken in an experimental direction by putting the play into what appears to be the aftermath of a social cataclysm. The characters do not wear the clown-like costumes traditionally used in “Godspell,” but instead are covered in dirt and patched clothing, looking like a group of lost children.
Leading this lost group of is Jesus, played by Connor Smith. His presence onstage is noticeable without being overwhelming. The other cast members gravitate towards and follow him naturally, supporting the idea that he is the leader of the fallen. Smith’s character choices are clearly displayed through his facial expressions and physicality. In the second act, when Jesus is faced with death, Smith is careful to put the desperation and confusion of the situation onto his face, even when the focus is turned more toward the ensemble.
Also able to adroitly display the internal conflicts of his character is Kevan Olson as John the Baptist/Judas. Olson is able to illustrate pain without needing to say a word, because the way he plays off of Smith along with his physical animation portrays the dialogue for him. From the first moment the audience members hears Olson, they are extremely conscious of his vocal abilities. Directing him to enter from the back of the auditorium while smoothly rolling out “Prepare Ye” calls attention to Olson, attention his rich voice clearly deserves.
Other members of the ensemble add to Olson and Smith’s energy. After a bumpy beginning, the actors seemed to increase their energy throughout the play. The cast members seemed to feed off of the spirits of one another, and the ensemble numbers teemed with lively activity.
Unfortunately, many of the soloists were difficult to hear due to technical issues with microphones. However, the cast and crew pulled through these issues and carried on easily with their show.
Adding to the mood and catastrophic theme was the lighting and set. Chain link fences draped with trash, and graffiti-covered brick walls give the impression that the characters are on a street in a huge city. The abandoned-looking, disheveled set pieces help set the overall tone of devastation in the play. Adjusting the mood scene-by-scene was the lighting. A brilliant red silhouetted the cast when Jesus became angered with Judas, while a soft blue shone during John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus.
The emotional content of “Godspell” is very heavy, and Robert E. Lee High School’s cast did a commendable job portraying that emotion. Both cast and crew maintained composure and character despite technical and musical missteps. Through a different interpretation of a well-known script, Lee High School as produced a thought-provoking and energized production.
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