Review: Gospel Truth— ‘Godspell’ at Villanova

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

Villanova Theatre starts their 2017—2018 season with a rousing production of Godspell, the 1970 musical depicting the parables of Jesus. Directed by Barrymore Award Winner Matt Pfeiffer, the show performs on the Vasey Hall stage now thru October 1, 2017.

“Godspell” started out as a master thesis project for John-Michael Tebelak at Carnegie Mellon University. Inspired by the medieval feast day known as the “Feast of Fools,” Tebelak started working with students to create a theatre piece that would bring joy back to worship. Using a technique we now call “devised theatre,” the group employed theatre games and other devices to create enactments of such parables as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, interspersing modern types of music throughout. After a successful run at the University, Godspell (with the original student cast) moved to La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in Greenwich Village. Its ten performances were so well received that Broadway producers became interested and hired composer Stephen Schwartz (also a Carnegie grad) to re-score the production. Schwartz’s used a variety of musical styles, from pop to folk rock, gospel and vaudeville. It was this that led to the musical taking on a clowning aspect.

Pfeiffer has embraced the devised aspect, as well as the clowning, taking his cast on a joyous ride—and the audience goes happily along with them. The cast of eleven is spirited, with wonderful singing voices. Pfeiffer gender bends things by casting Jesus and John the Baptist with female actors, Mina Kawahara and Megan Slater respectively. Ms. Slater also plays Judas Iscariot in Act II. Both are equally strong in the comedic and dramatic moments. Ms. Kawahara engages the audience from the opening monologue on; she particularly shines during the Garden of Gethsemane scene. Matching her in power is Ms. Slater; her clear voice singing the opening bars of “Prepare Ye The Way” is compelling.

Exceedingly strong support is provided by an ensemble of actors/singers/dancers who share their joy in telling this story. Music is always a key element in Pfeiffer’s production and this is no exception. In addition to the show’s score, the audience is treated to some lively complimentary tunes as they enter the auditorium. In addition to a 4-man orchestra, a number of the ensemble supplement the sound on violin, guitar, recorder, trombone and tambourine. This talented group is Galen Blanzaca, Leo Bond, Katie Horner, Marissa Kennedy, Kara Krichman, Heather Lemos, Stephen Reaugh, Mark Wheeler and Sisi Wright. Ms. Kennedy brings a lovely sweetness to “Day By Day,” while Ms. Lemos does a wonderful turn with “Learn your lessons Well.” Ms. Krichman does a terrific job with “O, Bless The Lord, My Soul.” Mr. Reaugh takes the stage for “All Good Gifts,” adding his guitar to the mix as well; Ms. Wright gives a strong rendition of “By My Side” (the only song remaining from the original Carnegie Mellon version). Ms. Blanzaca belts out “Turn Back, o Man” with honky-tonk gusto, while Mr. Bond carries “We Beseech Thee” nicely, and the entire company nails the big numbers such as “Save The People” and “Light of the World.”

The musicians are topnotch. Music Director Peter A. Hillard leads things on the piano, and he’s joined by Dan Moser on bass, Kevin Killen on drums and Daniel Levine on guitar. Well done gentlemen, well done.

As always, the technical aspects of the production are excellent. Michael Lambui has provided a simple, yet serviceable, set for the cast to play on, while Jerold R. Forsyth lights it perfectly. Jennifer Povish’s costumes evoke a steampunk-circus feel—except for Jesus. Ms. Kawahara is in a lovely flowing linen ensemble that gives her an ethereal look. John Stovicek adds nice supplemental sound—and has set the mic controls perfectly (often a real problem and distraction).

Godspell is a fun-filled two hours of theatre. Mr. Pfeiffer and cast have created a piece of such joy and playfulness you’ll find it irresistible. Performances continue this Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm and on Sunday at 2pm.

If you go: Remaining performances daily thru Oct. 1 Villanova is located at 800 Lancaster Avenue, at the intersection with Ithan Avenue. To get to Vasey Hall, take that first entrance on Ithan.  For information and to make reservations, visit www.villanovatheatre.org or call the Box Office at 610-519-7474