Priscilla Beach's "Godspell": A Miraculous Tent Revival

Rejoice, theatergoers, for the second coming of the renowned Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth is at hand! In recent years the theater has been focused on children’s theater, but the complex has now been rebirthed by Producers Bob and Sandy Malone as a theatrical tent (that is, until the old barn, the actual inspiration for the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movie “Babes in Arms”, is restored or replaced). Their first production is the popular musical “Godspell” (auld English for “Gospel”) based primarily on the parables found in the Gospel of St. Matthew, with three parables from St. Luke. It first opened off-Broadway in 1971, where it ran for five years, transferring to Broadway for another year, with several revivals and a long-running Boston version. The music, a mixture of pop, rock, gospel, folk and other styles, is by Stephen Schwartz (perhaps you’ve heard of his other musical about a certain green witch). Schwartz has a talent for magic, as evidenced in his body of work, from “Pippin” to “The Magic Show” and that aforementioned witch musical, to his next project starring Hugh Jackman in the title role of “Houdini”. The lyrics of “Godspell”, by John-Michael Tebelak, are taken from both the Episcopal hymnal and the Bible. It also has one song, “By My Side”, by Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon (a member of the original cast). The book honors several stage traditions from mime to vaudeville to even a hint of burlesque, with more than a casual nod to Medieval festivals. Given the talent behind the original, it’s a pleasure to inform you that creativity, as displayed in this revival, is not dead.

It’s easy to love “Godspell” for its sheer theatrical fun and complex but accessible score, filled with show-stoppers and amazingly moving moments; it’s also easy (for some) to dismiss it as simplistic. A case in point is the long Prologue, consisting of sound bytes from various philosophers, which could be seen as pretentious, but that’s sort of the point. The scene ends with general cacophony as they all dispute one another’s tenets, only to be confronted by the profound message of Jesus. There follow those parables, eleven in all, that may also be taken as simplistic, but only at first hearing, until you see what effect they have on followers of Jesus. Although Jesus is the lead role, this is fundamentally a story about the community left behind and how their lives were changed. One need not have personal faith (in the very narrowest sense of the term) to share the message of this ensemble.

And quite an ensemble this is, ranging in age from fifteen to sixty-nine, evidencing an extraordinary degree of intelligence in the choices each made about her or his character, as well as a daunting depth of musicianship. The result is a show that will make your soul soar, your spirit sing and your heart break, all at the same time. The power of this production rests in its highlighting of the individual strengths of its cast members. Brendan Duquette (Jesus) is sweet and gentle, balanced with a manly (and godly) presence and a gorgeous voice; if there is any justice in this world, he will have a very productive career. And speaking of voices, Jarryd Blanchard (John the Baptist/Judas) and Meghan Boutilier are blessed with pipes with incredible range (when they hit their highest notes, one wouldn’t want either of them anywhere near your precious crystal); Meghan also generously contributed some truly lively choreography. Corrine Manning’s comic timing and gift for improv are wonders to behold, as is Neil Nisbet’s delivery in a series of funny dialects, and Denise Faul-Sundstrom’s acting is intense. Maggie Irvine’s vocal chops show both the depth of her experience (this being far from her first musical) and trained dance. Caitlin Ricker, a petite performer with a huge talent, effervesces with unparalleled musicality (at last count, she can play some twenty instruments), while Will Flederman, at the ripe old age of fifteen, has amazing skills with magic and mime. They all share apparently boundless energy and enthusiasm. (One must demure from critiquing the performance of Jack Craib, since he doubles as a theater critic, thus risking conflicted interest; suffice it to say there’s not a clinker in the bunch).

This isn’t just theater under the stars; it’s a theater full of stars. Yet, impressive as they are individually, it’s as a group that this stellar troupe really shines. They’re a unit, a community, a family, which any successful “Godspell” cast should be. Under the able direction of Conni DiLego with Geronimo Sands (in his fifty-second year with the theater), it evolved as a truly collaborative effort with the cast, which was absolutely appropriate for this show. Organist Chris Ricci deftly leads a spirited group of musicians including Mark Elsner on brass and shofar (an authentic ram‘s horn), Charlie Tairmina on bass, and expert percussion by Isaac Lit. The intricate Lighting Design is by Rich Sullivan. Sound Design is by Ben Blanchard. Stage Manager is Dena Moscheck. The end result: a “Godspell” that’s as magical to see as to hear.

The “good news” (the meaning of the title) is that adult summer stock theater is alive again at Priscilla Beach Theatre, in a show suitable for the whole family. This inspired reincarnation (you should excuse the expression) incites sheer joy, but then what else would one expect from a theatre that has an unprecedented run of seventy-seven years?