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Wednesday, June 4,2014

Gospel truth

Riverwalk gets preachy with revival of New Testament musical

by Paul Wozniak

Riverwalk’s production of “Godspell” is a faithful adaptation of its source, the Gospel of Matthew  only with Broadway numbers. The show’s transparent preaching may not appeal to everyone, but the skill and commitment of the Riverwalk Theatre’s cast and crew guarantee an entertaining evening.

“Godspell” put composer Stephen Schwartz on the map in 1971. Songs like “Day by Day” were radio friendly hits, but the musical’s orchestral arrangements seemed dated to modern ears. Riverwalk’s production avoids that pitfall by staging the 2012 revised version instead, which makes every song sound crisp and new. Add to that a terrific cast led by the charismatic Matt Eldred as Jesus, stellar direction from John Delaney and a tight orchestra conducted by John Dale Smith and suddenly “Godspell” feels timeless.

Eldred’s portrayal of Jesus makes “Godspell” work. Benevolent and gentle with a sonorous voice and a quick wit, Eldred embodies the romanticized idea of Jesus from Sunday school stories. In the production’s present day setting, Jesus also functions as a theater coach who instructs his disciples to act out his teachings like improvisational sketches. This form works especially well during Act I as a plethora of parables like “The Good Samaritan” and “The Prodigal Son,” which are interspersed with politically progressive lessons on universal tolerance and forgiveness. The stories roll seamlessly into one another with near manic momentum.

As singers and dancers, the ensemble’s layered harmonies blend beautifully. The cast also excels as soloists, with Eldred and Tigiste Habtemariam standing out in particular. Eldred’s finest vocal moments are his final songs expressing pain and sorrow while singing softly in his upper range. But Habtemariam nearly brings down the house with the gospel-infused “Bless the Lord.”

Delany’s choreography keeps his cast moving through the audience and across the Tim Fox’s elaborate set, complete with trapdoors, a small pool and five trampolines. Fox’s kinetic lighting design effectively enhances every scene.

For non-churchgoing audiences, the musical’s biggest obstacle is the story in Act II which ramps up the drama to full Passion Play. While Act I flies by as biblically-based sketch comedy, Act II accidentally exposes the plot holes of the Gospel that the faithful usually take for granted. For example: Why would a devout disciple betray his beloved leader and friend? Jealously? Cowardice? How about, “because it was prophesized.”

Despite the lack of character motivation explored in the dialogue, the cast somehow makes these scenes resonate emotionally, even over the boom of fireworks: The cast demonstrated extraordinary resolve Friday night while speaking over the clamor of post-game festivities at nearby Cooley Law School Stadium for nearly five minutes (be warned, the Lansing Lugntus play at home again this Friday).

Ultimately, appreciating “Godspell” requires accepting it as a faith-based musical. Fortunately Riverwalk’s quality production only requires an admission ticket.

“Godspell”

Riverwalk Theatre 7 p.m. Thursday, June 5; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, June 6-7; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 8 $20/$18 seniors/students/ military 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700; riverwalktheatre.com

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