That was then; this is now. For Syracuse
Stage’s current production, instead of beginning with the Voice of God
declaring his supremacy, we have Jesus himself (Anwar Robinson),
sporting long braids like New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, and he’s wearing a robin’s egg blue beret of a United Nations soldier.
Truth be told, few of us could bear watching the 1971 version of Godspell, with its winsome, grinning street hippies, inspired by liberal theologian Harvey Cox’s Feast of Fools.
They have become as stale and time-bound as wide ties and aviator
glasses. Any contemporary director is going to reshape the action.
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the new associate artistic director at
Syracuse Stage, has drawn on his own life experiences to find new
expressions. He tells us he is the child of a Catholic Bahamian mother
and a Hindu father, both piously committed to their faiths. His Godspell embraces a syncretistic credo, in which all paths lead to the same goal.
To help us along, the program contains
eight pages of Cliff Notes summaries of world religions, including
Rastafari. And while the score still follows the compositions of
Stephen Schwartz (now famous for Wicked), much of the first act sounds Afro-Caribbean, as if borrowed from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once on This Island. And in the second act where the action moves farther a field, we spend much time in India.
Jesus Christ, TV superstar: American Idol finalist Anwar Robinson (standing, front)
performs in Syracuse Stage and SU Drama’s Godspell (above), which features the cast adorned in Leslie Bernstein’s colorful
costumes (below). MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS
Changes in theology and geography only
begin to suggest how profoundly Maharaj has rethought this show, which
he probably intends to be his artistic calling card. The original Godspell was also an archetypal off-Broadway hit; like The Fantasticks, it was a small-scale show that could be produced by any poverty row company or high school.
Here it is slated for the holiday slot,
the biggest production of the year, merging the resources of Syracuse
Stage and the Syracuse University Drama Department. Adam Koch’s complex
set employs a raised, raked rotating disc at the center, over which the
large cast gambols gracefully. Josh Bradford’s lighting design makes
the familiar Archbold Stage look more exotic and bigger than we know it
is. And costumer Leslie Bernstein outfits the ensemble in adaptable
we-are-the-world duds, evocative of a series of non-Western countries.
The women, incidentally, are always wearing bare midriff outfits, some
with fetching navel jewels.
Maharaj’s most important ally is longtime stage choreographer Anthony Salatino, who helps to transform this Godspell
into a world dance show. As a Juilliard graduate more given to
modernist ballet than to Broadway, Salatino rises to each new culture,
beginning with Cuba and Haiti, and moving on to India, the Sudan, Iraq,
China and finally New Orleans. At that same time this Godspell also borrows from the Galt MacDermot-Twyla Tharp Hair,
and not just because the assembled cast members are referred to in the
program as “The Tribe.” But Salatino’s footwork is not a pastiche or
melange. Each number has sharply defined movements, distinguished from
the culture that comes before and follows after.
Unlike other holiday co-productions,
there is no bold interface between the Equity players and the top
students selected to appear. Anwar Robinson, the American Idol
finalist, deserves his star billing. His vocal range carries rich
expression over the octaves, topping off with an elevated falsetto.
Wide also is his dramatic reach, ranging from the holy card gentle
Jesus of the first act to the angry Christ of “Alas for You” in the
second. He masters the light touch in extended comic sequences, such as
the near-spoof retelling of many parables, but delivers a wrenching
death scene with the Crucifixion on an electric fence.
In any Jesus story, Judas is always one
of the choicest roles. Timothy Ware makes him appropriately agonized in
“On the Willows,” all the more affecting as Ware has also been double
cast as the forthright John the Baptist in the first act. His “Prepare
Ye The Way of the Lord,” bracketed by extensive drumming, truly shouts
from the wilderness.
Stately Brandi Chavonne Massey assumes
many roles, most strikingly as the dark temptress in the second act’s
“Turn Back, O Man.” Her mild-mannered opposite number is Jasmin Walker,
who duets sweetly with Jesus in the first act’s “Oh Bless the Lord My
The only song from Godspell that ever made its way to the pop charts is “Day by Day,” whose lyrics Ben Stiller recites in Meet the Parents (2000),
when he is asked to say grace at dinner. Curiously, it’s the only
original song that survives from the proto-production at
Carnegie-Mellon, before Schwartz, then all of 22, was contracted to
write the rest of the off-Broadway show. Here it becomes a duet with
Jesus for powerhouse student soprano Nadine Malouf (Steel Pier, Sweeney Todd).
Other students distinguishing themselves are sportive Michael Howell in
“All Good Gifts” and lovely Lauren Nolan and handsome Brendon Stimson
in a trio with Jesus in “Learn Your Lessons Well.” And all the students
take comic roles in the less-than-reverent retellings of parables,
including Tinuke Oyefule and Frankie Paparone.
Two numbers testify to how seriously
director Maharaj has rethought the entire property. The more striking
is “By My Side” in the second act, a throwaway in other productions,
here turned into a quintet for female voices of the Tribe, the single
most exquisite and poignant moment in the 2½ hours. The second is the
transformation of Jesus and Judas’ duet “All for the Best” into a kind
of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson novelty song from the 1920s. It’s not
only disarming but comes as relief when we are about to overdose on
Imported music director Charles Creath
leads a dynamic four-member ensemble in the wings at right. Buffs who
remember the music from the original cast album will be surprised that
this version’s first act opens and closes with “Beautiful City,”
written for the 1973 movie version. Inserted also is “When the Saints
Go Marching In” for the New Orleans sequence.
It’s only three years since the Syracuse Stage yuletide show was the hyper-vanilla The Sound of Music or two years since the last chestnut A Christmas Carol. In this embrace of robust multiculturalism, the Tim Bond era shows what artistic regime change means.
This production runs through Dec. 28. See Times Table for information.