But If You’re Smart, You’ll Learn Your Lessons Well

When I was around 12, two musicals about the life of Jesus were dominating the airwaves: Godspell, a pop-rockish musical by Stephen Schwartz based on the parables of Matthew, and Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock-opera about the life of Jesus, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Of the two, I really preferred the music of Godspell—perhaps because it was more accessible and less heavily Christian (on the surface)—something that was important to this Jewish boy. However, I never actually saw Godspell on stage, although I did see the 1973 movie. That was remedied last night, when I saw the Knightsbridge Theatre theatre production of Godspell. This was a production of their KBT Teen Company, a teen and young-college acting company, and my daughter had a number of friends in the cast.

For those who haven’t seen Godspell before: it is not your typical musical; it is certainly not like JCS in formally telling the story of the life of Jesus. Although it does start with Jesus’s baptism by John, and end with the crucifiction, those serve more as framing devices. The heart of the first act of the musical is the telling of a series of parables of Jesus’ philosphy, drawn mostly from the Book of Matthew with a few from Luke (or so the synopsis says—being Jewish, I’m really not an expert on the source of the parables). Parables that are told include the story of the Pharisees and the tax gatherer praying in the temple, the story of a master and a servant who owes him a debt, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the story of a man who spent a lifetime acquiring the good things in life and then dies before he has the time to enjoy them, the parable of the sower of the seeds, the parable of the Prodigal Son. The second act focuses more on specific teachings and statements, such as imploring mankind to give up its temporal pursuits and to turn to God, the underlying commandments within Christianity, and who can enter heaven. The real focus of the second act is a buildup to the betrayal of Jesus and his death, followed by his ressurection. The musical has no specific location. Other than Jesus and John/Judas, there are no specific characters. The bulk of the cast is a group of young men and women, who have been portrayed variously from hippies to clowns. The goal is to have one, to learn the teachings of Jesus, and to leave the show with a those teachings running through your head. I’ll note that this was the first off-Broadway/Broadway show done by Stephen Schwartz, and was heavily based (at least in terms of words) on the Episcopal book of hymns.

The ultimate success of a production of Godspell depends on its director and its cast. The director needs to bring order from chaos: the structure as a collection of parables can lead to organized craziness with everyone everywhere, and the audience not knowing where to focus their attention. The cast must step up their performances: they need to sing well and project well, as well as inhabiting the playfulness of their characters. I’ll get to the Knightsbridge cast in a minute; for now, let’s focus on how this director handled this show. Let’s frame these comments by nothing that the primary director (Adam Diugolecki) was one of the teens, assisted by his mother (Vicki Conrad)—thus these could all be lessons that he will learn from experience. In my opinion (and admittedly, I haven’t yet seen a professional production to compare, although I would like to), the direction was not as strong as it could be. First, the director rearranged some of the parables. For example, I was expecting Day by Day to occur in the middle of the first act if not earlier; the director moved it to the end of the first act, shifting Light of the World to be the opening number of the second act. There were also points of too much side activity during some of the parables, which hurt the focus a bit. Most significantly, the director needed to exhort the cast to project more and be louder—there was no amplification, and at points you could not hear individual cast members singing (during solo numbers) over the music. I’ll note that acting and expression-wise, the director did a reasonably good job, although there was a little overplaying.

As for the cast: I went into this realizing that this was a teen cast—this means there will be will not be a uniform quality to the performances. Most of the cast gave a very strong effort, and some exhibited quite a bit of talent. Let’s focus on those folks, and then we’ll list the rest. In the lead as Jesus was Thomas Murphy O’Hara, a young man we know well from his work at Van Nuys High School. Thomas gave a very strong performance as Jesus in terms of acting, dancing, and movement; he captured the playful, loving aspects perfectly. Two areas that need work: his projection, when singing, so that the audience can actually hear his wonderful voice, and his pronounciation of the two Hebrew blessings he has to say. Also strong was Thomas’ sister, Shannon O’Hara, who is also a wonderful singer and dancer, as well as actor (and had one of the best bio lines: “I’d like to thank my brother, Jesus…”). Shannon was particularly strong in Light of the World. I was also very impressed with Quinlan Fitzgerald, who had a remarkably strong singing voice that she demonstrated in Day by Day, By My Side, and On the Willows. Christine Roux gave a strong performance in Turn Back Old Oh Man, although there is only so much “slutty vamp” a teen can do. I also liked Scott Bosley was strong in Light of the World with a good singing voice and good projection. Also good were Briget Fitzgerald in We Beseech Thee and Mackenzie Ward in Beautiful City.

There were some weak numbers, alas. One of my favorites, All for the Best, had good tap dancing but was spoiled by an inability to hear all the lyrics. Similar problems bedevilled Learn Your Lessons Well and We Beseech Thee. There were also some of the cast that seemed less than 100% there: at times you could see them playfully inhabiting their characters, but at other times they seemed distracted.

On the whole, however, the acting was reasonably good. Rounding out the cast were R. Benito Cardenas, Emily Abbot, Jeffrey Price, Tristan Price, Katie Buderwitz, Katie McDowell, Jessica Stone, and Lizzie McDowell.

Musical direction for the show was by Quinlan Fitzgerald, who coordinated a three-member band. This could have been stronger, especially in Alas for You. Dennis Poore was musical counsultant. Choreography was by Jean Delkhaste, Shannon O’Hara, Adam Diugolecki, and Christine Roux. The production was produced by Joseph P. Stachura, assisted by Rene Guerrero.

Turning to the technical: The lighting design was by JC Gafford and was reasonably good. There was no sound design credited—this was a problem as these kids would have been much better with a little amplification for those that needed it. Scenic design was by Adam Diugolecki (boy, was this young man stretched thin—directing, acting, choreographing, and scenic designing), and was suitably eclectic. Costumes were by Vicki Conrad and Debbie Buderwitz.

The last performance of Godspell” at the Knightsbridge Theatre is July 3.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Tonight brings “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2—no, I’ve never seen it. Sunday sees us in the sun at a Drum Corps show: Western Corps Connection on July 3 in Riverside. The following weekend is open, as Jerry Springer: The Opera did not work out datewise. A possibility is Working” at the Ruby Theatre in Hollywood; it is their closing weekend. The weekend of Carmageddon brings “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed) and “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed). The wekeend of July 23 brings Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl) and “Shrek” (July 24, Pantages Theatre, ticketed). July closes with “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed). August brings “Doubt” at REP East on August 13, and “On Golden Pond” at the Colony Theatre on August 20, and possibly the last Summer Evening at the Huntington with the Quarteto Neuvo on August 27. September currently only has one weekend booked: “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” at REP East on September 24; October shows “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1, “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22, and (hopefully) Bernadette Peters at VPAC on October 16. October will also hopefully bring The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT. Of course, I expect to fill some of the weekends in August, September, and October with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.