Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Loosely based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Godspell is part Sunday school class, part religious celebration, with a group of performers who act out various parables that teach moral lessons. The plot follows the life and teachings of Jesus but in an abstract and playful way. While it may be grounded in Christianity, the show isn't ever overly preachy, and is actually more celebratory in how it teaches how love for your fellow man is of the most importance. In that regard, it has a universal appeal that attempts to transcend one specific religion and it projects a strong sense of community as it teaches us simple life lessons about how to be a better person.
While the show isn't preachy, depending on your religious views, it could still come across as a very heavy handed "religious" experience. And the continual slew of parables, which are almost always delivered in a comical, somewhat "hammy" way, and are somewhat repetitive, gets a bit tiring. The second act also is a bit abrupt in how it rather quickly changes from the comical, fun and games of act one to a fairly serious focus on Jesus' life, with the Last Supper, Judas' betrayal, and Jesus' crucifixion playing out in front of us. If you aren't religious or spiritual you will probably have a completely different reaction to this show and may even come out thinking it's too much like a preachy and comical "Up With People" songfesteven slightly manipulative. But I urge you to focus on how the show is heartfelt, engaging, and incredibly hopeful. If the lessons prove a bit tiring, just sit back and wait for the next song in the awesome score by Schwartz to wash over you with superb melodies and lush lyrics, all of which are exceptionally delivered under Alan Ruch's music direction and Miles Plant's assured conducting of the engaging five-piece on-stage band.
Updated somewhat from the original version, and including the song "Beautiful City" written for the 1973 film adaptation, Phoenix Theatre's production also incorporates a few contemporary references, including some anti-Trump jokes, which adds a humorous, modern touch to the proceedings.
Director Michael Barnard has assembled a gifted, multicultural cast, including many Valley favorites. Commanding, compassionate and charismatic, Michael Sample is giving an excellent and confident performance as Jesus. Sample has a warm, assured stage presence and a clear connection to his castmates. His voice is rich and lush, yet also deep and soulful, on "Beautiful City." Eddie Maldonado beautifully embodies the part of Judas with a perfect amount of seriousness and moments of conflicted emotion.
The entire cast give upbeat, appealing performances with each getting a solo song or moment in the show to shine. Highlights include the sweet, loving and touching delivery of "Day by Day" by Michelle Chin and Chanel Bragg, who delivers a rousing and joyful "O Bless the Lord My Soul." James D. Gish's stellar, pure voice soars on "All God's Gifts," and Megan Moylan sings an upbeat "Learn Your Lessons Well" with a charming ukulele accompaniment. Lynzee Foreman shines on "Turn Back, O Man" and Edgar Lopez leads the upbeat "We Beseech Thee." Molly Lajoie leads the cast in "By My Side" which features some stunning harmonies from the entire ensemble. Wesley J. Barnes provides good comic timing and bright vocals, while Chad McCluskey adds some fun acrobatic movements throughout. Also, Maldonado and Gish deliver a moving version of "On the Willows."
Director Michael Barnard has set the show in a fantasy park with an abstract tree that has dozens of objects hanging from it. I'm not quite sure what setting or theme Barnard and set designer Aaron Jackson were trying to signify but it doesn't detract from the show and the tree is used quite effectively in the crucifixion scene. Molly Lajoie's choreography is fun, varied and upbeat. Lighting designer Michael J. Eddy creates some beautiful stage images; the imagery during the Last Supper scene is quite impressive. Carrie Smith's costumes are a mixture of colors, fabrics and periods which help to give a timelessness to the show.
While the book for Godspell may have some shortcomings in how it's fairly simplistic and has a minimal plot, the teaching of simple lessons and the idea of hope is something that is always valuable to learn and remember. Though Godspell isn't a perfect show, Phoenix Theatre's production is joyful and joyous with a cast that excels on Schwartz's well-known score.
Godspell, through May 20th, 2018, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.
Director: Michael Barnard
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.