Miraculous ‘Godspell’ at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

When studying theater, one learns that much of its origin comes from religion. Stories were told to explore moral issues.

“In ancient Greece, plays were performed at public religious festivals, and there are few tragedies that do not contain a reference to a god or gods in the first twenty lines,” noted Oxford scholar Robert Parker. “The theatre, it can be argued, was the most important arena in Athenian life in which reflection on theological issues was publicly expressed.”

And yet, currently, there do not seem to be many plays or musicals that directly invoke religion. If done well enough, it seems a natural fit. “Godspell” is a natural fit.

This show was conceived in 1970 by Carnegie Mellon drama students. It was John Michael Tebelak’s master thesis, and came to the attention of producers Edgar Lansbury(Angela Lansbury’s brother),  Joseph Beruh and Stuart Duncan. A well-known native of Princeton, Duncan produced other shows and was a theater critic. The new producers brought in Stephen Schwartz, who provided new compositions for much of the music.

In 1971, “Godspell” opened off-Broadway at the Cherry Hill Playhouse. and after 3 months, moved to the Promenade Theater for a run of almost five years. Schwarz, also a Carnegie Mellon graduate (class of 1968), went on to become composer/lyricist for the stage musicals “Pippin” and “Wicked.”

“Godspell” was not initially accepted by some conservative evangelicals, as it portrayed Christ and his disciples as clowns. Also, right wing churches eschewed popular music and preferred to worship with traditional hymns. Another issue was the absence of the resurrected Christ in the original production. This upset many traditionalists, as the resurrection was proof of the divinity of Christ in fulfillment of the Scripture.

Things have changed, and it is common now for “Godspell” to be performed at even some of the most conservative venues.

Music Mountain, however, is challenging us a bit. The show does contain a few current political references and for biblical purists, there may still be controversy over whether Judas had a choice and Peter the apostle was alone (at least, figuratively) in denying Christ.

It has been over 30 years since I have seen this show. I was even in a production. And as I say that, I feel like I am admitting (as a reformed Catholic) that it has been two years since my last confession. I should have seen this show again sooner — not that there are any script surprises. In the first act we are entertained by parables, songs and dancing. The second act is devoted to the passion of Christ. Spoiler alert: Jesus dies.

But what is thrilling about this piece, amazingly, is “us.” There is a joyfulness to this piece, just as there is a joyfulness to peace, and the stage can explode with anarchic choreography and love and improv. And it does.

No choreographer is listed in the credits. The movement is so natural, it seems to spring from the ensemble. There is an organic quality to it. I loved the moment in Gethsamane, when the apostles are asleep.

Louis Palena takes on the godlike task of directing, in addition to playing Jesus. He deserves the “S” for Superman emblazoned on his shirt that is a de rigeur part of “Godspell” costuming. There is an unusual sweetness and guileless to his Jesus. The trial and crucifixion were especially impressive, both in acting and stagecraft. What an amazing job!

Patrick Lavery imbues a charismatic showmanship to his John the Baptist/Judas. In most productions, the cast member who plays John the Baptist also plays Judas. This double duty by one actor reinforces the idea of the inevitability of Scripture by having the one who introduces Jesus as the same one who prepares his final exit.

Incredible singing by all of the cast. I got chills right from the beginning with John the Baptist (Patrick Lavery) singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Gigi Gibilisco and company rocks out and gives the best “All Good Gifts” you are likely to ever hear. He accompanies himself on the piano and hits a note that is so amazingly high and beautiful that I am sure any canines in the area perked up their ears and then smiled.

“Day by Day” sung by Lauren Brader was beautiful and an audience pleaser. This song hit the Billboard charts in the Seventies and was the break-out hit of the show. Whether talking about Jordan Brennan’s “We Beseech Thee,” Tom Farber’s “Light of the World,” Megan Hodson’s “By My Side,” Jill Palena’s “Bless the Lord,” Jenna Parilla’s “Learn Your Lessons Well” and Taylor Stabler’s “Turn Back, O Man,” you are talking about actors giving 100 percent, singing their hearts out and leaving it all on stage. And I am glad “Tower of Babble” — often excised as a prologue — was left in the show.

My best friend tells me that theatre is her faith. It is her religion. She was inspired by this unusually creative production, and so will anyone who is lucky enough to get a ticket to this show. The fourth wall does not exist. Audience members are brought on stage several times. Beach balls, long ribbons extending across the stage, sparkle blasted into the air, a metal jungle gym structure — all have been appropriated by creative director Palena and his production crew. Jared Williams’ lighting and sound were spot on and especially effective during Christ’s trial scene.

A special note: There is an onstage band that took this production to a higher level — even heavenly. Performing were Patrick Tice-Carroll as musical director and on keyboard, John Thomas Beaver on drums/percussion, Meaghan Doyle on guitar and James Villa on guitar. Jenna Parilla, mentioned earlier as a cast member, was also musical director.

I have often complained that at way too many churches there are not many who lift a joyful voice to the Lord. The cantor lifts his/her arm in the air, after singing a short passage for parishoners to repeat, and is most often met with a pathetic response. Godspell is the antidote. With audience members laughing, tapping their feet and even making a joyful noise to the Lord, like the boy from “The Sixth Sense,” I am seeing something unbelievable.

“Godspell” runs through Sept. 2, and tickets can be purchased online.

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  • It would be nice if these reviews came out a little earlier. You know, so an enthusiastic reader could have some time to make plans & purchase tickets! I read it today and it closes today.

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