“Come sing about love!” (“We Beseech Thee”
from the musical Godspell)
Friday, July 30th’s, ribbon-cutting ceremony at McGregor Hall Performing Arts Center in Henderson, NC, was entitled “Re-Opening Night”. The Henderson community was feeling happy and blessed to have this state-of-the-art venue open again for live performances, the first of which is Henderson Rec Players’ production of Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s 1971 Off-Broadway, 1971 London, and 1976 Broadway musical, Godspell.
Godspell follows Jesus Christ’s teachings, mostly the parables, as the cast acts out the stories and morals with a let’s-put-on-a-show attitude. They hug — a lot. They high-five. They drop pop-cultural references. They play sheep and goats in one scene, the Prodigal Son and his envious brother and doting father in another.
There are jealous Pharisees, moneylenders, wicked judges, and swooning apostles. And all become an accusing mob at Jesus’ trial. A charismatic Jesus leads this merry band with impeccable goodness, showing them the way to eternal salvation.
All set to Stephen Schwartz’s whimsical pop-rock score, Godspell is best known for the folk song “Day by Day” and the pop ballad “Beautiful City.” This show is an early work, and Schwartz would later write Pippin and the mega-hit Wicked. Those of us who have seen multiple versions of these three shows feel like we’re able to detect Schwartz’s growth as a composer and lyricist. But as strong as the other shows are, there’s something in the naïveté of Godspell that exudes warmth and approachability.
Director Mark Hopper is excited to be back. “Godspell has been a rewarding journey. Our summer-stock theater, Henderson Rec Players, is in its 49th season. We thought we were going to have to miss a second year due to COVID; but following the CDC announcement, we hastily announced Godspell and had it cast 10 days later!”
Hopper is also the show’s musical conductor and pianist. A Hopper show always includes an excellent band of talented musicians: Russell Favret and J.C. Martin on guitar, Jack Hopper on bass, David Cole on keyboard, and Tyler Nowell on the drums. Hopper has brought in vocalists Coleman Hines, Jeanie James, and Kathleen James to enhance the chorus numbers.
McGregor Hall has always wrestled with acoustic issues, and the audience is sometimes left straining to hear lyrics and dialogue clearly. But by placing the band on the stage, the mix between band and vocals is much improved, save for the bass, which was often a bit too loud. In this critic’s opinion, the best seating for audio quality is the center section, rows E through N.
The show begins with a Prologue, precisely performed by a monochromatic collection of philosophers. The Prologue devolves into a Tower of Babble, reminding us of our present situation when it comes to social media, disinformation, and discord. At the peak of the madness, we hear a trumpet’s clarion call, and Andy Dickerson appears from the back of the house, wearing John the Baptist’s traditional “camel hair” cape.
Dickerson’s version of “Prepare Ye” is performed with clarity and beauty. Suddenly, the stage becomes a rainbow of color. It’s then that we realize we’re about to hear good news — the “god-spell” — the Gospel.
When Louisburg native Benaiah Barnes appears onstage as Jesus, he is wearing a “Wakanda Forever” shirt. It’s then that we realize that this production of Godspell is going to be an original. Barnes’ sweet, clear voice is the perfect fit for a North Carolina Jesus, and the solo portion of “Save the People” is a crowd favorite. However, Barnes’ best solo is undoubtedly the beautiful “Beautiful City”. Triangle audiences will know Barnes from several productions, including Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds (2019) and Sister Act (2018) at Raleigh Little Theatre.
Sarah Wheeler performs a fine solo spot in a pep-rally version of “We Beseech Thee”; Ashley Jones delivers a strong belt with “Bless the Lord”; Brandi Parker raises the temperature with the Act One closer “Light of the World.” Felicity Mundy’s “By My Side” is beautiful in its simplicity; Saylor Gray’s performance is pure and radiant in “Day by Day”; and Amy Garbooshian sizzles like a James Bond girl in “Turn Back, O Man”.
Dancer Brendan Juengling (a member of the N.C. Theatre Conservatory) performs some amazing dance solos, and this critic expects to see Brendan in a Cirque du Soleil show in a few years. Completing the top-notch ensemble are Andrew Arnott, Geoffrey Arnott, and Micah Jones.
“Learn Your Lessons Well” is performed by Whitley Lynn, who recently appeared as Mrs. Mayor in Raleigh Little Theatre‘s 2019 production of Seussical! The lyrics are adorable and so is Miss Lynn. “First you gotta read ‘em, then you gotta heed em, Yah never know when you’re gonna need ’em.” Usually, this song is performed in a country-western style. But along with other numbers in this production, Hopper chooses alternate musical styles. For those of us who are used to the traditional instrumentation and arrangements, it takes a little getting used to. But kudos go to the Henderson Rec Players for making the show their own.
Ben Hicks’ Judas Iscariot is nimble and complex. A Henderson native, Hicks was last seen on the McGregor Hall stage as “Donkey” in Shrek the Musical in 2019. With most productions, the Judas character tends to keep his distance, even in Act One. But the versatile Hicks gets brought in to participate in many comic moments, well … because he’s talented and funny. So, the transition to a more sinister Judas has to happen quickly, with very little foreshadowing.
Assistant directors/choreographers Sharon Hopper and Jo Ellen Nowell overlay the production with various dance styles, all joyful and fun to watch. With a set reminiscent of a TV variety show, it’s difficult to get a bead on the time and location. Maybe the early 1970’s?
One actor wears torn khakis and a Hawaiian shirt, one wears a dress from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, one may or may not be dressed like a biker. The ladies who wore short dresses and mini-skirts struggled, especially with crawling on the stage floor and climbing to the upper platforms of the set. Shout out to fight choreographer Benjamin Peninger-Tarlton for keeping the cast safe with the punches, slaps, falls, and other physical engagements, especially in Act Two.
Although the lighting and scenic design is impressive, it’s what happens in and around it that reels us in. Director Mark Hopper sets a “come-with-us” pace, allowing the actors free rein to roam and perform with an improvisational wash. The cast consists of actors from Henderson, the Triangle, and beyond. And they combine in the very best way.
To quote a lyric from Pippin, “They say the whole is greater than the sum of the parts it’s made of”. Above all their combined talents, they believe with all their soul in what they’re doing. Sometimes, they wear their hearts on their sleeve, but that’s part of Godspell’s built-in charm.
The show is two hours long, with a 10-minute intermission. Friday night’s audience received some extra entertainment at intermission: a quartet singing “Just a Little Talk with Jesus”.
Why see Godspell again? Why drive all the way to Henderson? Because an exemplary cast, an imaginative director, peppy dances, and a glorious band are answers to our prayers after more than a year without live theater.
Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s GODSPELL (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 6-8) (Henderson Rec Players at the McGregor Hall Performing Arts Center in Henderson). TICKETS: $21.35. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 252-598-0662 or firstname.lastname@example.org. COVID-19 SAFETY MEASURES: 252-598-0662 or https://www.mcgregorhall.org/coronavirus-updates.
NOTE: Nancy Rich is a local director/choreographer, with a love for the performing arts and a passion for supporting local artistic work. Nancy and her husband, Rod, own and operate Monkeybravo, a video production company. Nancy is one of the founders of Actors Comedy Lab and participates in local theater as a hired gun, a volunteer and, on very rare occasions, an actor. Nancy recently wrote a series of monologues called The PRINCESS Talks, performed at the 2017 Women’s Theatre Festival. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment