Review: Trustus Theatre’s Godspell

Photo by Rob Sprankle

Photo by Rob Sprankle

By Jillian Owens

Trustus Theatre surprised me when they announced they would be mounting the often-produced Godspell this season. For a theatre that I associate with being new, raw, and edgy, this seemed a milquetoast choice. I mean, your church (if you’re of the church-going sort) has probably done a production of this show. Middle schools do it. And Trustus is doing it too?

For those unfamiliar, Godspell is a musical that retells the gospel of Matthew. It features an ensemble cast that reenacts the various parables of this gospel in a wide variety of styles. The original Stephen Schwarz (music and lyrics)/John Michael Tebelak (book) version debuted in 1971 on Broadway, although a non-musical version by just Tebelak existed for about a year prior. Trustus chose the 2012 updated version (A very good call) that incorporates the 1970s retro vibe of the original with modern-day references that help keep it from feeling too dated to be relevant.

Director Dewey Scott-Wiley has put together a cast of folks we Columbians have seen plenty times of in various productions, but rarely together. Getting to see this interesting mix of talented people play onstage together was probably my favorite part of the show. The cast is top-notch. Maintaining the level of energy necessary to pull a show like Godspell off is a huge challenge, and there are no weak spots here. Catherine Hunsinger (Lindsay), Mario McClean (John the Baptist), and Courtney Selwyn (Celisse) stood out the most to me for their terrific vocal performances, but with such a variety of songs in such a wide array of styles, everyone got a chance to shine. Scott Vaughan was a beautifully compassionate Jesus, and played his role with an almost childlike raw simplicity that even this nonbeliever found touching.

The set is stark, modern, and evocative of being trapped inside of some sort of computer. Scott-Wiley mentions this is meant to convey “a landscape of technological decay and isolation” in the program, and this has been well-executed by set designer Chad Henderson. Amy Brower Lown and Molly McNutt obviously had a blast putting together the costumes for this show. There are hints of the hippy-type costumes of the original production here and there, but they’ve all also been modernized just like many of the other elements of this revised take on the now-classic musical. It’s as if a bunch of grownup toddlers got to pick out their own play clothes for the day…in a good way. The band, led by musical director Randy Moore help give this production a level of professionalism that I haven’t seen in this musical before.

The score is interesting, but feels dated. It still feels as if the vast majority of the music hasn’t been updated since the early 70s, which is partly to be expected. Songs like “Day by Day” were extremely popular (to the point of topping the charts) back then, and they aren’t without merit. I personally like music from this era, so it wasn’t too much of an issue for me, but I can see how others might be put off.

I mentioned earlier that I’m not of Christian faith, so this was an interesting experience. The majority of the content of this musical is steeped in religion, but there’s also room for various takeaways for those who don’t subscribe to these particular tenets of faith. If you take the dogma out of it, you have a play about a group of people who are struggling through a dark time of societal decay. They’re being led by a really kind person, and they’re just trying to figure out how to be good to each other and build a “Beautiful City” (my favorite song from the show) where everyone can thrive. There’s something to that, no matter who you are.

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