News Column

LOCAL THEATER: 'Godspell' brings the gospel, but mostly the joy

April 28, 2013

YellowBrix

April 28--'Godspell' brings the gospel, but mostly the joy

PORT ORCHARD -- There's only one real problem with "Godspell," the Stephen Schwartz songfest loosely based on the Gospel of Matthew: It's not a cliffhanger. You know, going in, exactly what happens at the end, and no matter how sunny and giddy and shiny a company might be able to make the show that leads up to it, it's in the back of your mind.

Jesus dies on the cross. Didn't exactly need a spoiler for that, did we?

It's a bummer; there's no getting around it. All a group like Western Washington Center for the Arts, currently performing Schwartz and librettist John Michael Tabelak's little parable-palooza, can do is work the rest of the show -- the pretty songs, the lovely lessons, the hippie-esque ideals of community and love -- for all they're worth ... before the jackboot comes down.

You need the pleasure to feel the pain.

WWCA's ultra-colorful, ultra-musical, ultra-likable production does just that, making the show's first 90 minutes so fun and enjoyable that you almost -- almost -- forget what's coming.

"Godspell" never has been a show that you had to be a religious person to enjoy, despite its subject matter, biblical language and characters. By contrast, devout people need not be offput by the show's self-effacing, flower-children aesthetic (which, in many productions, included Jesus in clown garb).

Since the message of "Godspell" (whether we believe in it or not) is one we already know, the musical is best just enjoyed on its own merits -- which, in WWCA's case, are many. It is easily the most engaging and touching of the several local productions I've seen over the years.

Not to say I think it's perfect. It's really just a trifle, really, a launch pad for whatever an individual company wants to make of its collection of lovely pop and folk-styles songs and opportunities to stamp their own personality of it.

That's where director Dan Estes' cast of 12 succeeds so richly succeeds. Starting with a wonderful, winning Jesus played by Nash Rhaburn, there isn't anybody you won't like.

Rhaburn's singing and movement are just the beginnings of a dynamic, tempered performance. He is, from his first nondescript entrance into the cluttered, abandoned-theater set, just the type of charismatic "master" that would attract disciples, at turns instructive and mildly parental, but relentlessly loving and forgiving. He also proves a deft and subtle comedian, particularly in a show-stopping puppet-show production number "All for the Best," providing one of the oversized talking heads (along with Tyler Brillhart) for puppets constructed by Rhaburn and castmember Carly Page and operated by Page and Kasey Dickason.

Brillhart is a suitably torn Judas, and turns in some nice vocals as well as adding some electric and acoustic guitar to musical director Bruce Ewen's usual dazzling array of keyboard voices.

All the disciples -- rainbow-bedecked by costumer by Ellie Jamison and set in motion by choreographer Rebecca Ewen -- get their chances to sing, dance and clown. The singing starts at better-than-adequate and gets better from there, a pretty remarkable feat for a show with a mostly young cast. The dance elements are also well executed, and the comedy -- much of it improvised by the cast during the rehearsal process -- is rapid-fire and often inspired: At one point, Jesus claims to have the ability to "read" feet. He finds "Re-joice!" in the first offered hoof, but when someone else has a go, they get "Ree-bock!" The performances are loaded with charm and personality, broad and show-bizzy without ever getting obnoxiously so. The vocal blend -- when the whole company gets down to business together -- is warm and full and inspirational.

Tina Henley-Hicks' set, rendered even more explosively colorful by graffiti tags by Rhaburn and Page, is a nice alternative to the usual playground environment. It also works in concert with some interesting lighting trickery (by Estes, Rebecca Ewen and Jeremy Minard) to make the dreaded crucifixion scene just as jarring and intense as it needs to be.

If you love "Godspell," WWCA's joyous take will do absolutely nothing to diminish your esteem. If you're an uninitiate, though, and a little squeamish about the show's religious themes, there's nothing that should keep you away ... unless you just plain don't enjoy good singin', dancin' and jokin'.

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(c)2013 the Kitsap Sun (Bremerton, Wash.)

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