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Conceived and Originally Directed by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

Gateway Performing Arts

Directed by Mandy Orr
Produced by Eric Snodgrass
Choreographer - Ryan Warren
Music Director - Jill Brewer
Costume Design - Michelle Wentroble
Lighting Design - Pavel Perebillo
Sound Engineer - Mike Luzecky
Scenic Design - Eric Snodgrass
Stage Manager - Rachel Turner
Senior Executive Producers - Thomas Miller and Mark Harris
Executive Producer - Niles Holsinger

Jesus - Eric Snodgrass
John the Baptist/Judas - Cavanaugh James
Galileo/Isaac - Isaac Holland
Edward Gibbon/Moriah - Moriah Khalil
Georg Hegel/Michelle - Michelle Lynch
Jean Paul Sartre/Heather - Heather Reddick
L. Ron Hubbard/Ruben - Ruben Robles
Marianne Williamson/Katie - Katie Smith
Thomas Aquinas/Chase - Chase Williams
Socrates/Cynthia - Cynthia Zrna
Ensemble - Karina Alonso, Maddison Brandley, Darian Fitch, Audrey Ham, Riley Henderson, Layci Jones, Lindsey Quiggle, Shaun Stoehr, Josue Summers, Andrew Trimble

Gilberto Mangual, Ralph Conard, Jordan Covarelli, Ryan Carpenter, Chris Knox

Reviewed Performance: 7/28/2017

Reviewed by Mildred Austin, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

GODSPELL began as a Master’s Thesis written by John-Michael Tebelak and produced by Tebelak and college friends at Carnegie Tech School of Drama. It was picked up and moved to Café La Mama in New York in 1971 where it was well received. New York producers decided a full unified scored was needed and Stephen Schwartz, another Carnegie Tech grad, who was looking for backing for his musical PIPPIN PIPPIN, was tagged for the score. Tebelak, himself an Episcopalian, said later in an interview the impetus for GODSPELL came initially from an Easter vigil service he attended where he was struck by the seeming boredom of the both the congregation and the ministers. The idea was born regarding making the teachings of Jesus, especially the parables from the gospel of Matthew, relevant to contemporary life and particularly appealing to the young who had at that point in the late ‘60s and early 70’s were leaving organized religion in droves. Jesus appears as an earnest, wise storyteller, in a Superman tee shirt, who uses the everyday background of his apostles to deliver the fables which contain the moral compasses to guide their (and all of our) lives.

This musical has proven so appealing over the ensuing decades that it has seen thousands of productions in community and church theatres. A revival on Broadway in 2012 included a new musical number, “Beautiful City,” and it is this revival version that was presented by Gateway Performing Arts at Gateway Church in Dallas.

Gateway Performing Arts knows no shortage of obviously talented performers! This production of GODSPELL was set in a 2017 coffee house, certainly appropriate to today’s audiences. The set is everything a coffeehouse should be: multi-level, tables, chairs, couches, smoke, and a barista (AKA Jesus) and walls resplendent with eye catching and colorful paintings. Against this palette the parables of the Gospel according to Matthew are delivered and explained by the use of mimicry, puppetry, Pictionary, Charades, audience participation, song and dance. And therein lies the difficulty in mounting any production of GODSPELL. It is a compelling situation where less is more but too much is too enticing. The show begins with the Tower of Babel, which is often deleted, but was intended always to be included. In this opening, philosophers debate the existence of God, ending in a jumbled flurry of words, finally interrupted by the blare of the trumpet and the opening song “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”. The Tower opening is difficult for the audience to understand unless it is carefully staged and the actors deliver the philosopher’s speeches meticulously and meaningfully. This wasn’t fully accomplished in this production, which leaves the audience wondering “What was that all about?”

The actors portraying Jesus and his apostles are quite talented with outstanding voices. Cavanaugh James as John the Baptist/Judas gives a truly moving and believable performance as he lovingly follows then bitterly portrays Jesus as the show moves towards it inevitable conclusion. James is a force onstage with a powerful voice and emotion that seems to come from deep within.

The other eight apostles are strong performers as well. Katie Smith has near-perfect comedic timing and gives a beautiful vocal performance as well on “Bless the Lord”. Smith also reigns in the tendency to over-act which is critical to the success and meaning of this show.

Chase Williams also displays a superb sense of timing for comedy, a power-packed voice, but needed some of that “reigning in” at times when together those attributes contributed to a tendency to go over the top in his performance.

Michelle Lynch was not one of the “power voices” of the production, but the sweetness and innocence she brought to her character and to “Day By Day” was power in its simplicity. Her performance held sway with the audience because of that.

Isaac Holland also provided the needed feeling of naivete and wonder of an apostle overwhelmed by the charisma of the man he follows unfailingly. Then he pours forth an intense, full, vocal production of “All Good Gifts” which touches hearts with its simplicity.

Heather Riddick drew the incomparable “Turn Back, O Man” and her voice was certainly capable of all that was required but the performance just did not draw in the audience as it is meant to do.

Ruben Robles, Cynthia Zrna and Moriah Khalil all turned in very competent vocal performances on “Light of the World,” “By My Side,” and “Learn Your Lessons Well” respectively.

Eric Snodgrass as Jesus is also more than competent vocally and respects the boundaries of the show in not going over the top just for the sake of fun. Because much of the show was “over the top”, Snodgrass, in the simplicity of his character doesn’t come off with the inner power necessary to carry this role. He also was hampered by appearance. He looked and seemed too old for the character. Jesus is as young as his apostles. His attraction is his message, not the wisdom or appearance of age. This conflicted the actor is his portrayal and it diminished the strength of his performance of this central character, around which the entire play pivots.

And herein lies the difficulty of the production of this musical play. Telebak meant for it to be powerful in its simplicity, otherwise the sorrow of Jesus and the confusion of the apostles at the Last Supper is lost. And the crucifixion then fails to carry the powerful emotions it should evoke in the audience. For GODSPELL to bring the meaning to the message of Jesus that is needed, the director must always remember “Less Is More.” While the staging of all the numbers certainly demands the attention of the audience, the show doesn’t succeed in touching one’s heart as it must. The addition of the ensemble, though understood, distracts rather than adds. While the voices included are more than competent, they simply are not needed. It must be remembered that the life and message of Jesus as recorded, is that of a simple man delivering a simple message in terms that the people of his day could understand. That was Telebak’s intent in this play, to present the parables of Jesus in language and symbolism that the people of his (and now our) day and age could easily comprehend.

The music of GODSPELL is beautiful and haunting, fun and energizing, and forceful and commanding. Music Director Jill Brewer and the ensemble of piano, keyboard, guitars and drums are up to the challenge. Here is the simplicity needed everywhere in the show. It doesn’t require an orchestra, just the instruments necessary to fill us with Schwartz’s beautiful music.

Lastly, GODSPELL has been criticized since its debut, by the devout, for the lack of a Resurrection scene. It was the author’s intent that there not be one. Not hinted at or overtly presented. Jesus’ body is carried off by his apostles through the audience (not included in this production) and he is not seen again as Jesus. The actor simply comes onstage as part of the cast for the curtain call. Gateway’s production seemed to try to straddle this conflict. The use of lighting certainly suggests something has transpired and then Jesus? Snodgrass? comes through the upstage door to join the other actors for the curtain call. It is understandable that a production by a church performing group, and in the church itself, would choose to do the ending this way, though it still steps a bit over the line of the author’s intent.

All in all, the performance is certainly enjoyable. It is funny, the music is beautiful and inspiring. The actors are extremely talented, so talented that given unlimited freedom, the message is unfortunately overwhelmed and often lost.

Gateway Performing Arts
Gateway Church, The Great Hall, 12123 Hillcrest Rd. Dallas, TX 75230
Plays through August 6, 2017

Tuesday August 1 /7:30 pm
Wednesday August 2/ 7:30 pm
Thursday, August 3/ 7:30 pm
Friday, August 4/ 7:30 pm
Saturday August 5/ 2:30 and 7:30 pm
Sunday, August 6/12:30 and 4:30 pm
Tickets: $26, $18, $10