BY STEVE WONG
No matter your religious faith — even the lack of it — Centre Stage’s production of Godspell will set your mind to thinking about how Jesus’ teachings have changed the world — and you’ll have a good time in the process. You just have to let the songs and outrageous retelling of standard Bible stories wash over you like a glorious religious experience.
Godspell is almost unique in the world of theatre. Some even say it’s not a play but rather performance art with its fluid script and references to current social issues like Facebook’s dominance in social media. It came along in the aftermath of the turbulent ‘60s, along with such productions as Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. The songs are rock-like, even though some of them are based on Bible text.
The characters are young people of many different persuasions searching for meaning in life. And, the storyline is Jesus using parables to explain complex philosophical ideas. But don’t think that Jesus is a white man with a beard in a flowing robe. Here, he’s a handsome African-American — Wesley Hudson — with the charisma to be a comedic late night talk show host. Hudson, a native of Belton, is a great singer, having had roles in Dreamgirls, Shaboom-Shaboom, and I Feel Good: A Trip to Motown. But in Godspell, he also shines as a good and flexible actor, capable of engaging the audience with wit, depth, and personal commitment.
In Centre Stage’s production, there are 10 actors, whose roles change like water into wine and back again. Other than Jesus and Judas/John the Baptist ( played by Austin J. Kara), the other characters have everyday names, like Telly, Morgan, Lindsay, and Nick. They are first introduced as undirected and unhappy people lying about an abandoned warehouse. They are victims of an uncaring world where violence and conflict are the norm. The first song is “Tower of Babble,” an almost unbearably noisy and chaotic (but most appropriate) piece of music that reminds us how God made the different languages of the world to thwart early man’s effort to build a tower to heaven.
For the rest of Act I, Jesus moves his “disciples” away from the smite of the Old Testament, preaching the love of God. If you don’t remember your Sunday school lessons, it might be difficult at times to grasp the details of the parables, but that’s okay. The jokes, jabs, silliness, and general unruliness of the disciples serve a greater purpose: It wasn’t easy to preach the gospel in Biblical times, and it’s a whole harder in 2021, when politics, religion, race, age, gender, and hair styles divides us in countless ways.
It is here that the roles played by Kara, become important and opposing characters: John the Baptist and Judas. Kara, the play’s dance captain, puts emotional strength into his work, depicting the inner turmoil of both characters on opposite ends of the spectrum: the endless joy to baptise Jesus and the devastating shame of betraying him. This is Kara’s debut at Centre Stage, but he’ll be back with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare — Abridged. I hope he keeps on dancing.
Under the direction of Miriam Ragland, Godspell is made urban, gritty, and totally in the now, but she maintains the core messages of compassion, forgiveness, community, hypocrisy, and martyrdom. The rest of the cast — Kevin Arnold, Cassie Francis, Abigail Gilbert, Sarah Greene, Miranda Harrison, Kristofer Park, Savannah Thomson, and Matthew Quattlebaum — as a group and as breakout individuals are highly complimented for continuously pivoting from role to role with ease. Sometimes one becomes a wanton woman, sometimes they become masters and slaves, sometimes they are just really good dancers and singers. Eventually, they become disciples spreading the gospel. The popular song Day By Day was especially inspiring and much appreciated by the audience in the first act.
Act II opens with Francis singing Turn Back, O Man, and what a beautiful song and beautiful voice by Francis, who wore a black pandemic mask. Technically flawless, Francis put her soul into the words and set the passionate direction for the rest of the play that led up to Jesus’ crucifixion. It is the end of the play that has generated much controversy for the past 50 years. Suffice to say, you may not get the ending you were expecting, but you get what is needed to make one of the important concepts being put forth: The word of God lives on.
Centre Stage is courageous to tackle Godspell. It takes a tremendous amount of extra effort by the playhouse, the director, the actors, and even the audience to produce and truly appreciate a work of art that is so unusual in structure, scripting, setting, and message. As a director, Ragland had to know what challenges Centre Stage and the audiences would face when presenting a show that colorizes some of the world’s most revered religious stories with strokes of rock ‘n’ roll music, a fringe setting, out of the box choreography, and characters who could have been from the set of a Mad Max movie.
It is not often that theatre can reach this deep into the hearts, minds, and souls of an audience, but Centre Stage is doing it. Just don’t sweat it. Enjoy the music and acting with an open mind and let the religious experience wash over you like the River Jordan.
Godspell continues through Sept. 26. for tickets, visit centrestage.org.