Jesus as Clown, Disciples as Dirty Stinking Hippies: City Rep Returns With “Godpsell”
FlaglerLive | October 10, 2015
To quickly and easily buy tickets for “Godspell,” go here.
So for the opening act of its fifth season, City Repertory Theatre is staging “Godspell,” that vintage musical about the last seven days of Christ.
This is the same troupe that, for its 2015-16 season, is continuing to boldly go where few community theaters dare by staging Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” and Eric Bogosian’s “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll”?
“We didn’t want to be accused of being one-sided,” director and City Rep co-founder John Sbordone said with a chuckle. “I happen to have a particularly affinity for ‘Godspell.’ I grew up with it. I kind of love it.”
At first blush, City Rep staging “Godspell” (which is somewhat based on the Gospel of Matthew) seems as inversely incongruous as Mrs. Needlefutt’s fifth grade drama club taking on Moliere’s “Misanthrope” or Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.” Along with music and “new” lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak, “Godspell” also includes lyrics straight out of the Episcopal Hymnal.
Still, it wasn’t surprising that “Godspell” managed to tweak some sacerdotal noses when its harlequin-appearing Jesus – with clownish white face-paint, eyes dripping black teardrops, a Superman “S” T-shirt peeking through his suspenders – first reared his head off-Broadway in 1971.
Holy Blasphemy, Batman! This play depicts Jesus as a clown! And his disciples are dirty, stinking hippies!
Yet the musical’s cute, hippy-dippy Jesus registered only a blip on the culture wars radar. Yes, one website blogger proclaimed “‘Godspell’ is NOT based upon the GOSPEL! . . . God says ‘Godspell’ is accursed.” But check christianforums.com and one sees the play’s supporters outnumber nervous, wary disciples of Christ by two to one.
Palm Coast’s insurgent theater director chooses to indulge in a bit of biblical popularity.
And when the blasphemy bar was raised long ago by the likes of, say, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film of Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ” and photographer Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” the funky-chic JC of “Godspell” was permanently rendered to be goofy and lovable, even if the play doesn’t have a resurrection scene at its finale.
To prove its Good Housekeeping Seal approval on every Main Street Babbitt ever walked, even the liberal left doesn’t bother to fire “separation of church and state” volleys when a public school welcomes Jesus through its doors via “Godspell.”
Some might even casually dismiss the musical, which has undergone numerous revivals, by tagging it with that supreme theatrical left-handed compliment: “warhorse.”
So, as Job might ask in one of his moments of hapless fury with the inexplicable Creator, just what the hell is CRT doing staging “Godspell” as the opening play of its new season?Sbordone, always looking for the edge, the underbelly or the neglected nuances of any theatrical work, found something in “Godspell.”
“I thought it would be for us in this space a unique experience for the audience,” he said of City Rep’s performance space in City Marketplace on Cypress Point Parkway. “Because we are in three-quarter round, we are able to climb our walls. We are able to be inventive in very interesting ways with the production values.”
“Godspell” was was actually proposed by CRT president Julia Davidson Truilo (herself the daughter of a late deity, not least of culture).
“When she said that, I said, ‘Oh my God yeah, why not?’ ” Sbordone recalled. “We have a young, energetic cast. The music’s very decent. It’s got so many wonderful qualities and I think what it boils down to is: I just like the thing.”
But Sbordone isn’t sticking to many of the play’s traditions.
“You’re going to see the Superman T-shirt but I don’t think you’re going to see anything much traditional about the show,” he said. (Sbordone can go mainstream, but traditional? That’s asking too much of Palm Coast’s most valuable insurgent.)
He originally cast a woman as Jesus but, in a plot twist worthy of Kazantzakis, “she got pregnant,” Sbordone said with laughter. The role then landed with Andre Maybin, whose black skin and Mediterranean smile make him more authentically Jesus-of-Nazareth than most pasty-white versions plastered on the wishful re-imaginations of western pieties.
“I try to be gender and color blind” with casting, Sbordone said. “Our Jesus is black and our cast is very diverse. We bring some interesting things to the table.”
The fact that the remaining eight cast members are decked out in colorful garb that more resembles contemporary mall-kids chic than vintage hippies only aligns with the original vision of the show’s creator.
“The characters in ‘Godspell’ were never supposed to be hippies,” Stephen Schwartz states on stephenschwartz.com. “They were supposed to be putting on ‘clown’ garb to follow the example of the Jesus character as conceived by ‘Godspell’s’ originator, John-Michael Tebelak, according to the ‘Christ as clown’ theory propounded by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School (among others).
“Mr. Cox wrote a book called ‘Feast of Fools’ that goes into detail about this. The chapter that is most relevant to ‘Godspell’ is called ‘Christ the Harlequin.’ Because the show was originally produced in the hippie era, and because the director of the ‘Godspell’ movie somewhat misinterpreted the characters as hippie-esque, that misunderstanding has come to haunt the show a bit.”
Diane Ellertsen, City Rep co-founder and the choreographer for “Godspell,” said watching Sbordone direct his charges has been telling.
“He gets very animated in his seat, with his facial expressions,” she said. “He is so drawn to this show. He’s so excited about the different levels this cast has gone to. That means if he’s that excited, they have done their jobs.”
Now At City Repertory Theatre: “Godspell,” written by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, directed by John Sbordone. Opened Sept. 18, with performances on Sept. 25, 26, Oct. 2, 3 9 and 10, all at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on Sept. 27, Oct. 4 and 11. Tickets are $25 for adults. Buy your tickets easily here or call the box office at 386/585.9415.
Here’s the 2015-16 lineup for City Rep’s 2015-16 Season:
“Godspell,” Sept. 18-Oct. 11. The 1971 musical portrays the last days of Christ — who sports a Superman T-shirt.
“God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza, Oct. 30-Nov. 8. When an 11-year-old boy knocks two teeth out of another child, the parents meet later to discuss the incident in a civilized manner — until their meeting degenerates into chaos.
“A Mark Twain Christmas,” Dec. 12-13. Robert Gill portrays the legendary writer and humorist.
“Working,” Jan. 15-24 — A musical based on Studs Terkel’s best-selling book.
“The Last Romance,” Feb. 12-21 — A golden-years romantic comedy by Joe DiPietro.
“Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,” March 11-20 — Robert Gill returns to star in this Eric Bogosian work peopled by 10 eccentric/quirky/oddball characters.
“The Me Generation,” April 29-May 8.
One of those plays hasn’t been written yet.
“Our last show is a multimedia production that doesn’t exist yet,” said Sbordone. “We’re calling it ‘The Me Generation.’ Our technical guy Ken Flanagan runs a firm called Creative Design. He has his own LED boards. He said he wanted to do something with ’70s rock and he wants to use the boards to do projections, to do film, to do displays of all kinds. So we’re doing a ’70s rock show that hasn’t been written yet. We think it’s going to be kind of unique. We’re doing an interesting season.”
Productions will be staged at City Repertory Theatre, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, Suite 207B, Palm Coast. Friday and Saturday shows will be at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.. Tickets are $25 for musicals and $20 for other shows. For information call 386-585-9415 or go online at crtpalmcoast.com.