Bob Goepfert: A Timeless “Godspell,” Perfect For Our Times | WAMC

Bob Goepfert: A Timeless “Godspell,” Perfect For Our Times

Aug 18, 2020

PITTSFIELD, Mass.  - “Godspell,” which is produced by Berkshire Theatre Group in Pittsfield, Mass., through September 4, is the first professional live performance of a musical presented in the United States since March.

It is, perhaps, the ideal show for the times.  “Godspell” is timeless, which actually means it is always of its time.  It was first produced almost 50 years ago, and it is based on material about 2,000 years old – the parables from the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  

It’s a pleasant experience that celebrates resilience and ingenuity as performed by a young cast of talented performers.   There is fun to be had, thanks to clever staging and a sincerity of purpose.  A bonus, considering the obstacles the production has overcome and the time in which it is offered, is that it somehow avoids being sappy.   It’s a feel-good, huggy musical in which there are no hugs. 

The performers, all dressed in denim, are always in the moment.  And though their movements are confined, they find a way to connect to each other and the central character, Jesus – who is there to teach them how to endure the unendurable.

Nicholas Edwards is an ideal central figure.  His Jesus is a calming presence. His teaching rarely becomes didactic and he is able to remain distant from his disciples, while still showing his care for their well-being.  He sings well and his rendition of “Beautiful City” (written for the film) is not only lovely, it is, arguably, the most timely and moving for a 21stcentury audience.  He and Tim Jones, who plays Judas and John the Baptist, have the strongest connection within the cast.

In case the experiences sound too serious and heavy, don’t worry.  This is a musical and the score by Stephen Schwartz is loaded with songs that are easy to listen to and impossible to get out of your head.  It includes songs that have endured since its original run    “Day by Day,”  “All for the Best,” “By My Side,” are but a few that can be identified after hearing just a couple of notes.   

As for the morals “preached” in the play – love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, celebrate the return of a prodigal child and live a humble life – they are precepts that we struggle to include in our daily lives.  And though there are ponderous moments, somehow the times make the messages very relevant.

There is much to enjoy and appreciate in this production of “Godspell.”    That it is even taking place, in an environment that has been deemed safe for a cast of ten to perform in front of approximately 100 people is an inspiring accomplishment.

Indeed, for me, the most emotional moment was instead of using the original opening that uses quotes from philosophers of the ages, each member of the cast speaks directly to the audience about how they, their careers, hopes and dreams have been impacted by the virus and the shutdown of all theater.   It’s a near-tearful moment that is terribly real.

It’s also a place-setter for a production that makes you acutely aware of the time in which it is offered.  

“Godspell” is offered inside a huge tent, behind the Colonial Theatre downtown Pittsfield.  Temperatures are taken upon entering, the seating is mostly in pairs and spread out so that you are at least six feet away from the nearest person.  The stage is 40 feet wide and about 20 feet back from the audience.   It’s not only safe, it’s comfortable.

The performers, like the rest of the world, seem confined to their own spaces.   Those spaces are defined by chairs and platforms that are frequently placed behind clear, moveable plexiglass units.  When the performers stray to cross the stage, masks are worn, social distance is kept and no one ever, ever, touches another actor.

The stories told have meaning.   The group form a bond and the goodness that their leader Jesus teaches them brings solace and peace.   Those emotions find their way into the audience.   

The cast all have good, if not great singing voices.  The skits directed by Alan Filderman are fun as he adds many contemporary references that are good for a knowing laugh.  Most of all, he finds a way for the cast to hug with their hearts rather than with their bodies.   

Choreographer Gerry McIntyre finds a way to bring movement to the production.  Most impressive is the seated tap dance number by Kimberly Immanuel and substituting yard sticks for canes in the “All For the Best” soft shoe dance makes the point that needs to be made through clever humor.

The production is not without its flaws.  The number “Turn Back O Man,” is ill-conceived and poorly performed.   The touchless crucifixion of Jesus works, but his leaving the stage and his later reappearance could be more dramatic.   

Moments like that remind you that the creators are making theater under difficult conditions.  Ultimately, those imperfections make the point that we are attending live theater in an imperfect world.    For that and many other reasons, the Berkshire Theatre Group production of “Godspell” is worth celebrating.  

“Godspell” continues downtown Pittsfield, Mass. behind the Colonial Theatre.  For tickets and schedule information 413-997-4444 or berkshiretheatregroup.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

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