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Rep puts new shine on ‘Godspell’

September 18, 2018

Much recent criticism of the musical “Godspell” has complained that the 1971 hit has not aged well. The play doesn’t seem nearly as subversive as it once did, its pop-rock musical stylings are now heard in most Protestant churches, and aside from those songs, the well-known stories from scripture, as acted out by a bunch of outsiders, seem bland.

So there’s a need to breathe new life into the golden oldie, which the Rochester Repertory Theatre tries valiantly to do in a production that opened last Friday.

Director Samantha Gibson, who directed last season’s hit musical “The Spitfire Grill,” has set “Godspell” in modern times in a New York City subway station (the River Jordan Station). So much for the hippies and circus of the original. And, where traditional productions of “Godspell” have tended to feature young casts, Gibson has pulled in everything from teens to, well, RJ Traff, who was in the show the last time the Rep did it 30 years ago.

The show’s signature song, “Day by Day,” is touchingly performed by high school student Antoinnette St. Godard. Among the Rep newcomers, Genie Thiss solos on the lovely ballad “All Good Gifts.”

The strongest singing, though, comes when the entire cast sings as a chorus, providing a swelling, full sound. “O Bless the Lord, My Soul” is one example; the reprise of “Day by Day” is another.

John Shaffer makes his Rep debut as Jesus, with Mitch Gibson in a strong performance as John the Baptist and Judas. Also in the cast are Alex Berling, Jacob Dreher, Michele Nyman, Lisa Modry, Susanna Spencer, and, of course, Traff, who has made a welcome return to local stages in recent seasons after a long layoff.

Dreher also designed the multi-level set, which is a convincing replica of a New York subway platform — minus the rats.

If anything, this cast might be over-rehearsed. Too many of the ad libs feel prepared in advance. At times, the mugging for laughs seems counter to the serious message of the parables being told by Jesus. Maybe that’s the point: Nobody’s really listening to him or taking him seriously.

There’s no doubt that this show requires an incredible amount of energy and stamina, and Gibson’s cast never appears to run out of steam, even in a warm theater on a humid opening night.

Give credit to Gibson for realizing that “Godspell,” with its timeless message of love for one another, needed to be refurbished and updated. Maybe the Rep won’t wait 30 years before doing it again.

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