Experience the teachings of Jesus and His sacrifice as told by the Gospel of Matthew in Godspell which is currently playing at Benson Theatre under the auspices of Rave On Productions.
In a sense this show marks the full circle of my theatrical life as this was the first show that made me aware of theatre waaaaay back when I was in the third grade and we listened to “Day by Day”. However, this was my first time actually seeing the production.
I was very glad to see Rave On tackle a show outside of their usual métier and they passed the challenge with flying colors. This show is a load of fun due to an incredibly talented cast and deft handling of Stephen Schwartz’s score.
The actual script is surprisingly simple. There’s very little originality in the dialogue as it’s a nearly verbatim lifting of the Gospel of Matthew. The originality comes in the handling of the dialogue and the music (many tunes were actual hymns) and that’s where the show’s strength lies.
Many varied styles of storytelling are utilized in the production: spoken word, pantomime, charades, vaudeville, even a bit of performance art and it all makes the words of the Gospel come alive. Matthew McGuigan’s musical direction is especially superb as he brought many genres into the music from Gospel to rock to a bit of blues and jazz and even adult contemporary. Yet he still gives it a flavor as if the music were just written today.
Kimberly Faith Hickman is a triple threat for this production as she not only directed and choregraphed the piece, but she also designed the costumes for the actors.
As director, Hickman does no wrong. The actors are always lively and energetic and each story has its own unique flavor. She well guides the ensemble who often have to play many different roles and each one is unique and well-defined. Hickman also handles the more emotional scenes, especially Jesus’ Passion, with power and grace.
As choreographer, the numbers each have their own indelible mark. Whether from the purely fun vaudevillian dancing of Jesus and a follower in “All for the Best” to the use of flashlights and arms in a most literal kind of line dancing in “Light of the World” to the spontaneous freestyle of “We Beseech Thee”, each number is just as much fun to watch as it is to listen to.
As costumer, the costumes are very casual and bring the characters into the modern times though some have a definite taste of the show’s 1970s roots with the vests.
The show has a strong ensemble which features powerful performances and singing from Jonathan Berger who does double duty as a jubilant John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord and a tragic Judas who calmly offers to betray Jesus, yet has a moment where he nearly reconsiders that’s going to punch you in the gut. Megan Berger can belt a song like few can and gets the freight train rolling in “Tower of Babble”. Brittney Thompson nails the show’s signature number “Day by Day” with a light bluesy interpretation with a voice as soothing as running waters.
The bulk of this show lies on the shoulders of the actor playing Jesus and Billy McGuigan proves he’s as formidable an actor as he is a musician as he turns in a performance likely to have him in the mix for Best Actor in a Musical at next year’s OEAs. His energy and versatility are astonishing as he can be light and amusing in one moment and then tell a simple story in the next. But his best moments are his dramatic ones in Act II as Jesus’ death draws near. His simple, clean request to the Father to avoid death will melt your heart. His refusal to succumb to Satan’s temptations are fused with a desperation to hold onto God’s truths in Jesus’ darkest hour. And his agony on the cross will silence you with its sadness.
If you’re a person of faith, you’re apt to find this show wonderfully worshipful. If you’re not, I’m betting you’ll really reflect on this show’s message as you’re being entertained.
Godspell runs at Benson Theatre through Feb 26. Showtimes are 7:30pm Fri-Sat and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. Benson Theatre is located at 6054 Maple St in Omaha, NE.
Photo provided by Rave On Productions