by J. Scott Southworth
This week, rather than critiquing another film in wide release, The Corsair has instead been offered an opportunity by the Pensacola Little Theatre to see and review their newest show, ‘Godspell.’ The Little Theatre is located in downtown Pensacola. Address and ticket information are available at the bottom of the article.
The Pensacola Little Theatre’s production of ‘Godspell’ is bunches of fun. I want to get that out of the way before saying anything else about it. It is energetic, spirited, and full of joy and playfulness. Parts of it seem almost improvised, and may even have been so originally. At no point was I bored, and rarely was I dispirited. I enjoyed the entire production thoroughly.
If these are odd comments to make about a production detailing the life of Jesus Christ, then they only hint at the oddball nature by which this particular production of the musical play by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz (the latter was the composer and lyricist for DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt back in 1998). The play, based on the gospel of Matthew, is not so much a narrative story as it is a collection of parables and lessons, many of them rephrased but otherwise unaltered from their source material. Snippets of biblical events crop up here and there, but not very often; for most of its run time, the cast is split simply between a teacher and his students; Christ and his disciples. Despite strongly characterizing performances, the characters are mostly undefined and interchangeable. Rarely is anyone even mentioned by name.
Described thus, ‘Godspell’ no doubt sounds boring and pedantic, and it may indeed have been if not for the enthusiasm of the performances. The performances by the Little Theater’s cast have taken the material and infused it with a sense of flowing surrealism. The players flow seamlessly from one character to the next, not breaking character so much as changing or altering it. Comedy is provided in the form of slapstick, exaggeration, and even the occasional pop-culture reference.
The performances were strongest in those scenes – particularly the parables – that allowed for the most freedom of creativity and expression. These feature strongly in the first act, which is by far the strongest of the two. The second, while not necessarily weak (a few scenes in it were outstanding, including one in which a sultry devil attempts to seduce the audience directly), had an unfortunate tendency to devolve into pageantry. While expected (it’s hard to portray the late stages of Christ’s life without going through the motions), the loss of spontaneity was disappointing, and left somewhat of a drag on the performances. This is a production which functions best while alive and jumping; the shadow of betrayal and death suits it ill.
While the entire cast was quite competent and enjoyable, the performance of Jesus by Lance Brannon was of particular note. His portrayal of Christ lacks the fierce and angry tones which have often been associated with the character of late. Instead, he exhibits a sort of folksy charm in his performance, which is full of compassion, patience, and quiet wisdom. The take works, and I found him captivating in his authenticity. Unfortunately, Brannon’s vocal song performances were not quite so remarkable; I had trouble making him out during most of the musical numbers, a problem I rarely had with the rest of the cast. Fortunately, most of the other song numbers find their wings just fine; in particular, the full-ensemble performance of “Day by Day” was absolutely extraordinary.
The set design (also by Brannon, who is usually the Little Theatre’s technical director) is a particular curiosity. Rather than go with a more traditionally biblical set, Brannon opted to dress the set up like a light bulb factory. The intent, according to Brannon, was to take the concept of Christ being the “Light of the World” and illustrate it literally. It’s a creative idea, and the set itself is a work of art in its own right, one I couldn’t help but marvel at before and after the production. But during the performance I found it distracting, upstaging at times both the material and the otherwise well-balanced cast. The crucifixion scene, in particular, during which the set plays an involved role, seemed gaudy and forced. I admire the thought and craftsmanship that went into designing it, but ultimately, a more minimalistic set might have been advisable.
I was asked to check if there were any former Pensacola State College students in the cast. It turns out there was one. Nethaneel Williams, who graduated from PSC in 2012 with a degree in theatre, had this to say about the production: “It’s been one of the most exciting and fun productions to work on because the cast is so friendly and enthusiastic, and I really think they will bring joy to anyone who sees the show.” Based on his assessment, I’d have to agree. ‘Godspell’ may never gather any sort of biblical weight behind it, but it certainly was a joy to watch. Not quite divine, but electrifying all the same.
Godspell is showing this weekend, Sept. 19-22, 2013. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee performance at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available for $30, $24, $20, and $14 depending on seating. Student prices are also available. The Pensacola Little Theater is located at 400 South Jefferson Street, Pensacola, FL.
More information, including a place to purchase tickets online, can be found at http://www.pensacolalittletheatre.com/General/godspell.