What began as a master’s thesis by Carnegie Mellon University student John Michael Telebak moved Off-Broadway in 1971 with new music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and, from there, became a staple in the repetoires of regional and civic theater companies everywhere.
In case the title eludes you, it is “Godspell,” the high inventive production of which opened Wednesday at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre, proving once again that anything old can be very new again. Trust me. This is not your mother’s “Godspell.” From the highly creative mind of director Tony Humrichouser with solid assists from musical director Thomas N. Stirling, choreographer Lesa Dencklau, lighting designer Greg Griffin, some modern technology and a non-stop cast of 10, it is a very new look at an old favorite. Godspell is the Anglo-Saxon word for gospel and, loosely translated, means “good word.” The words here are very good and very familiar. The series of actions come from the Bible, primarily from the Gospel of Saint Matthew (with a definite assist from the Gospel of Saint Luke), and as the parables unfold, they mark the life and teachings of Christ from baptism to resurrection. Gone is the clown-style makeup usually donned early on by the eight singer/dancer/actors portraying disciples. Black and white are the only costume colors for all save Jesus (Benjamin Maters), who adds a blue shirt. Jake Klinkhammer in the dual role of John the Baptist/Judas sports suspenders and a snappy fedora and is obviously more stylishly slick than the others, but still in white shirt and black trousers. And they are the only ones with character names. The others use their given names.
One of the definite challenges to any production of “Godspell” is to create a new atmosphere while retaining the unchanging messages. Humrichouser achieves this with the use of four very large video screen which change images according to the action or emotions on stage. “Alas For You” features a montage of faces, some better known than others, each proclaiming innoccnce. Musical underscores-for-emphasis include many melodic themes — Charlie Brown, Looney Tunes, “Law & Order,” “The Godfather,” “Chariots of Fire” — and even a tip of the toes to Tina Turner as Katie McCreary unleashes her roof-raising belt voice in “O Bless The Lord” a la “Proud Mary.” Tony’s twist on “Turn Back, O Man,” which traditionally has the singer slinking through the audiences, instead keeps Sophie Grimm center stage while ensemble members imitate an Egyptian-style frieze. There is a great deal of laugh-out-loud humor in this “Godspell,” which offers ensemble members many opportunities to showcase their comedic abilities, while the sobering endgame brings the action — and the music — to a much more dramatic level. There is NEVER a doubt about their vocal talent. In solos, duets or choral work, they stand individually or blend beautifully, as required. With Klinkhammer, Maters, Grimm and McCreary, ensemble members are Erica Wilpon, Ashley Travis, Nick Laughlin, Caitlin Mesiano, Matthew Dailey and Zachary McConnell. Each has an opportunity to shine and each makes the most of it, creating a “Godspell” to remember.
“GODSPELL” plays Sunday and Tuesday through Saturday in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street. For tickets and show times, call 267-8041 or (866) 823-2618 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com.