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Telling stories

Community at the heart of Godspell

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-05-09


Apparently, the Bible was hot property for musical theater source material in the late 60s and early 70s. Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Godspell all debuted around that time, and all have endured through revivals on the big stage, countless productions on smaller stages around the world, and various soundtracks.

Of the three, it’s probably Godspell that’s hardest to define. Far less “rock” than Jesus Christ Superstar, and less theatrical than Joseph… , Godspell is a loosely structured show that takes a unique approach to illustrating the gospels, one that places the focus on the ensemble cast rather than two or three stars, and allows a lot of leeway for both the director and the cast.

That creative freedom that Godspell gives its cast and director was what interested Doug King, who directs the Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s production of the show (which begins its run May 7).

But at the same time, King says that since 2011 marks the shows 40th anniversary, he wanted to retain a lot of the simplicity of the original production. “I think sometimes people work too hard on trying to make it something ‘way out’ and different and unique, and they start to lose the focus a little bit,” he explains. “We didn’t want to do an exact replica, but what we came up with led along similar paths as the original, but pulling out some new approaches. I think we have a very good contemporary version that still honors the 40th anniversary of the original here.”

The set-up for Godspell is basically a group of people learning a series of parables from the book of Matthew and the Book of Luke. The setting, language, and music are all modern day, and with the exception of Jesus (Kerry Ashton), John the Baptist (Ennis Brown), and Judas (Evan Hart), the rest of the cast doesn’t necessarily play “characters” — they’re all referred to by their real names on stage, and take parts in the various parables. “In our show, this group is cleaning up an alley way,” says Kerry Ashton, who plays Jesus. “Then, this Jesus character comes in, someone who is not part of the group, and they start talking about the parables.”

“It’s an ensemble show, and the momentum gets handed from one actor to the next as they re-tell the parables,” Ashton continues. “Yes, the story is about Jesus, but we’re all out there together, the whole time. As an actor, for me, it’s my favorite kind of show. You never really get the ‘one person on stage doing a song.’ There’s some little moments here, but there’s not a 10 minute scene with just two people. It just keeps going.”

Julia Goodall is one of the members of the ensemble. In her “real life,” Goodall is a pastor at Grace St. Johns United Church of Christ. “For me, being in the ministry, I find Godspell to be so relevant, because when Jesus was walking the Earth, he took things that were around him to illustrate the stories that would help the people around him to understand,” she says. “That’s basically what Godspell does, it brings it to modern language, so we’re doing the same thing, telling the stories using references from today.”

This is actually Goodall’s third time being involved with Godspell — she directed a production of the play in 1997, and was part of a 2003 production at First Presbyterian Theater. “That’s the thing with Godspell, it’s all improv off who you have in the cast. I’ve enjoyed doing something completely different than what I did last time and the time before that. It’s a whole different interpretation of the show. That’s what makes this such a unique musical.”

The tone of the play changes from the first act to the second. “The first act is pretty much comedy,” says Ennis Brown (John the Baptist). “You’re still learning the word and the message. We poke fun at certain things… I guess the idea is, if you laugh at certain experiences, you’ll learn it better.”

But things change in the second act, though, as the story recounts Jesus betrayal and crucifixion. Not that it’s too grim, but… “The second act gets a little more ‘real’,” Brown explains. “The light-heartedness of the first act gets you into it, then the second act sits you down and just tells you the story.”

For Doug King, directing Godspell has been an interesting process. For all the focus on the show being an ensemble piece (the play’s creators make reference to it in their original production notes), King confesses that he really didn’t “get” that aspect of it at first. “The original concept was for these people to find community, and they bond together through community, and initially I just wasn’t buying that,” he says. “I thought ‘this has the solid, strong scripture references, and it’s probably one of the best musical interpretations of the teachings and ministry of Jesus…’ That’s what this show is about.”

“But then as I pushed the cast to really tell the story, and pushed myself to do that too and not complicate, it really did kind of zero in on community. It brought the focus on what these actors as an ensemble are all building together.”

Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Godspell

Saturday, May 7 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, May 8 at 2:00 PM

Friday, May 13 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, May 14 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, May 15 at 2:00 PM

Friday, May 20 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, May 21 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, May 22 at 2:00 PM

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $24/adults; $16/age 23 and under; $20/Sunday Senior Matinee
Box Office: 424-5220
www.fwcivic.org

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