GODSPELLBook by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Granbury Theatre Company
Directed by Kent Whites
Music Director – Duncan McMahan
Set Design – Phil Groeschel
Sound Design – Kyle Hoffman
Lighting Design – Kent Whites and Kalani Morriessette
Costume Design – Kennedy Styron and Marcie Allison
Max Swarner – Jesus
Josh Leblo – John the Baptist/Judas
Ensemble (in alphabetical order)
Reviewed Performance: 4/19/2014
Reviewed by Angela Newby, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Godspell originally opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971. It is a highly entertaining theater piece that has played in various touring companies and revivals since. Several cast albums have been released over the years as well.
Granbury Theater Company’s production steps outside the box to highlight all of the talent that graces the stage, yet keeps within the tradition of the musical. Director Kent Whites does an amazing job and hits the nail on the head casting different members of the ensemble in the non-named roles.
The mood of the play is completely awakened by Kalani Morriessette’s lighting design. As the back cyc moves through a series of rainbow colors, each is thoughtfully considered to match the action’s feeling. Red graces the stage as Jesus is being condemned, and in the same way, at Jesus’ resurrection, the purity of white indicates redemption. It is in each of these color changes that my heart grew heavy knowing what was coming in the musical. Yet, there are times when the lighting falls short and a spotlight leaves characters’ faces in shadow. In “Light of the World”, the constant color change is distracting and seems inconsistent with the music.
Kennedy Styron and Marcie Allison do a superb job on costumes. They put a twist on the costumes by making them dressy but with a modern vibe. My favorite costume is Jesus. Originally all in white, once in ministry he comes out in khakis and a baseball shirt reading Co-Pilot and the #1 on the back. John the Baptist/Judas, was a mix of semi-formal in an open sports coat and undershirt with black pants. The ladies of the ensemble vary from skirts and shirts to prom dresses while the men of the ensemble in Hawaiian shirts to suspenders and bow ties. Though the range is wide, it works well together.
Jesus, as played by Max Swarner, was superb. “Save the People” allows the vocal authority of Swarner to shine. The first act is written to show how Jesus was just an average man. Due to the blocking, Swarner is easily lost within the ensemble making it hard to see him, but it does reflect that he is one with the people. Swarner shows real emotion in the hours leading up to Jesus’ death and the audience can see tears glistening not only in his eyes but also on his cheeks in “Beautiful City”. In saying goodbye to each member of the ensemble, the audience can also understand the grace in leaving someone you love. Swarner’s powerful vocals bring chills in “On The Willows.” The audience can’t help but feel the finality of the character’s life and Swarner’s performance is profound.
John the Baptist/Judas is played by John Leblo who had a rough time with his mic, making it hard for the audience to hear not only his lines but also his deep and soulful voice. The second act was much better for Leblo and the audience was able to grasp the power behind his voice. There are times when Leblo is turned away from the audience and it is hard to see his facial expressions which are needed for both his characters. He steals the heart of the crowd as John the Baptist as he is baptizing with the water, and conveys the true celebratory aspect of the scene. His grin is as wide as the Cheshire cat, which allows the audience to feel the same joy John has as he leads people to Jesus. Leblo gives a dynamic performance with “Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord)” that leaves the audience anticipating the rest of the musical. Leblo equally plays a hurting and regretful Judas when he betrays Jesus. He postures to Jesus, and as the tallest actor onstage, the difficulty in lowering himself allows the audience to see the true guilt in turning Jesus over. Playing the two most opposite characters, it is refreshing to see how well Leblo brings out the different character traits for each.
Throughout the performance, it is the ensemble’s performances that are the most appealing and a stand out for me. Godspell has only a few named characters, and Whites uses the talent of each ensemble member to support them. In “Day by Day”, Katie Keller’s physical demeanor, facial expressions and movements are not only enchanting but it also shows her strong vocal cords.
In both acts of “Learn Your Lessons”, Cassandra Beltran’s strong stage presence and Marcie Allison’s powerful vocals complement each other so well. Allison’s character is visibly shaken when Jesus is going through the Passion, and it is a joy to see Gabe Whites simply put a hand on her shoulder for comfort.
Gabe Whites also gives a dynamic performance as Lazarus and brings the audience to laughter through his unsteady old man walk and drawn out death scene. Emily Warwick has a soulful voice and is able to capture the audience through each of her singing sets. Ashley Blaine in “Turn Back, O Man” sings a seductive and provocative piece in which her actions, as she saunters across the stage and theater, show her character’s sin.
Justin Diyer presents not only his acting and singing talents, but also his guitar talents within the performance. He steals scenes with his energy, jumping around the stage, and with his different vocal ranges to captivate the audience with each new biblical story he is in. Yet, it is Caitlan Leblo I couldn’t wait to see more of throughout the musical. In “O, Bless the Lord My Soul” she captivates the audience through her expressive eyes, and her voice gets the audience tapping and practically singing with her. Caitlan Leblo is the tallest female in the cast and uses her stature to help play a mix of characters that highlights the actress’ confidence. I love her facial expressions and true joy that shines from her eyes. The ensemble easily allows Sawarner and Josh Leblo to shine in their roles.
Sound design has multiple issues, with microphones cutting in and out. The track is just the right volume to highlight the voices of the cast. However, the two main characters’ sound quality is way off. Swarner’s mic makes him sound like he is in a cave, and, as said before, you couldn’t hear Leblo’s amazing voice or his lines. This was the most disappointing aspect of the musical for me.
Music Director Duncan McMahan does an amazing job highlighting the cast’s vocal abilities. It is a joy to see that he was able to capture the various types of music that are portrayed in Godspell, from rock to ballads. The recorded music was effective and useful to the musical. The musical numbers are equally assigned throughout the cast to highlight all of their talents. This is especially true in “By My Side” as each of the women in the cast is assigned a partner that compliments them.
Phil Groeschel’s set complements the constant transition from biblical story to biblical story through simple design. Each piece has multiple purposes to help the musical move forward. The set design doesn’t change so the well placed props are necessary to keep the scenes flowing smoothly. I had problems believing the cross at the end, which was more of a stick than something that could support the weight of a man. The secondary cross that covers Jesus is impressive, and the harsh black and sheer size of the piece is visually reflective to symbolize the finality of death.
Overall, Kent Whites and his amazing cast and crew do an outstanding job with their production of Godspell. I left the theater this Easter weekend extremely grateful for a cast that gave all that they could to tell the gospel of Jesus. Bravo!
Granbury Theater Company
133 East Pearl Street
Granbury, TX 76048
Runs through May 18th
Friday - Saturday 7:30 pm, Saturday at 3:30 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm.
Tickets are $20.00, $17.00 for seniors 65+ and HS or College students, $15.00 for children 12 under).
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.granburytheatrecompany.org or call the box office at 817-579-0952.