With bright, rainbow wardrobes and electric intensity, the 12-person Opera @ Augustana ensemble of Godspell resembled a contemporary (and Christian) version of Hair. The vibrant student actors last weekend filled Wallenberg Hall at Augustana College with the spirit of music and tromped about the stage praising God and engaging hundreds of audience members with optimistic songs.
In less than two hours, I witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Last Supper, and the Beatitudes, and was regaled with stage interpretations of at least 15 Bible parables. The songs were mostly upbeat, and the Bible stories had messages such as love your neighbor as yourself, avoid laziness, and only Jesus can save you from the torments of hell.
But unlike other musicals that use Bible stories as material (Joseph & the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar), Godspell focused less on the actual stories and more on preaching what people should or shouldn't do to attain God's favor. Now, I don't know about the rest of the audience, but after seeing the actors squirming about like demons and innocents being thrown into the "fire," I spent the rest of the show calculating my most recent sins. Don't get me wrong, I was clapping along with the rest of the sold-out crowd, but parts of this show seemed less like a musical than an energetic church service with a really talented choir preaching Bible verses.
The stories in Godspell are based on the Gospel of St. Matthew and are told by Christ (played by Christopher Scott) to a group of 11 students. In his director's notes, student Christopher Thomas describes the show as "a variety of different styles and dialects - ranging from vaudeville to hip-hop - through which the actors themselves create a newfound community around Jesus, their friend."
Godspell does have a unique blend of contemporary styles, with pop-culture references such as the movie Chicago and the oh-so-lovable cell-phone slogan "Can you hear me now?" By adding memorable lines and moments from the current cultural consciousness, the updated show runs very smoothly and easily engaged the audience.
Most of the parables are presented in a quick, comical manner that removes some of the seriousness from the consequence (a.k.a. eternal damnation) and adds an exciting liveliness to the Bible passages most Christians learned in Sunday school.
The performers and the songs were by far the saving graces of Augustana's Godspell, and ensemble pieces such as "Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord)" and "Day by Day" were crowd favorites, with an energetic weaving of voices filling the room with a beautiful communal spirituality. Amy Fischl used her role as the fun, sexy seductress in the song "Turn Back, O Man" to its highest potential, prancing around the stage and out into the audience with graceful movement and an ever-present smile. Scott was the definition of confidence as Jesus. With fiery red hair and incredible vocal capability, he commanded the stage and interacted with the other actors easily, as if holding an everyday conversation with friends in a coffeehouse.
Godspell at Augustana was a fast-paced offering of music, dance, and spirituality that most people enjoyed. I found the performance praiseworthy but had difficulty with the preachy production.