- Godspell by John-Michael Tebelak
The Berkshire Theatre Group’s summer 2020 production of Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s frequently produced Godspell was the first fully staged musical in the United States to be approved by Actors’ Equity Association since the inception of the global coronavirus crisis shut down theatres nationwide in March 2020. As such, this was a landmark historical production: the group’s ability to put up the show, with strict health and safety protocols and without leading to the infection of cast, crew, musicians, or audience members, was proof that communal theatrical performance can survive and even thrive in the most unprecedented of times. At the core of the show was unbridled optimism: a can-do attitude designed to remind us that even in the darkest of days, if we are able to come together inclusively and with positivity, we can build (or rebuild) a beautiful world. This was not the insidious, toxic optimism of magical thinking that has led some to call for businesses or schools to reopen willy-nilly; it was a measured positivity characterized by abundant precautions: audience members wore masks throughout, had temperatures taken, signed waivers, gave phone numbers for contact tracing, and numerous social-distancing measures were rigorously put in place. At the same time, Godspell’s important and uplifting message was at times somewhat undercut by certain failings in the production: from elements of stagecraft to the price point of the tickets. Ultimately, the few disappointments in the staging were of little importance to audience members like myself who had been starving for live theatre over the past months, but the high cost was a more significant issue, since the inaccessibility of the show to diverse audiences meant that the material conditions of the event to some degree belied its message.
Alan Filderman’s production was designed to engage with the present moment in a variety of ways. Before the opening number, “Prepare Ye,” the cast members spoke about the ways the current crisis had interrupted their lives: disrupting promising [End Page 93] stage careers including planned Broadway debuts, forcing thirty-something actors to move back in with their parents, generating feelings of desperation. The various stories began to sound a bit similar, even repetitive, but that was part of the point: the feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and despair brought about by this crisis are in fact communal. They are individual traumas we share. Moments throughout the parables and songs that constitute Godspell highlighted this striving towards collective inclusivity; this included small but significant updates to the script to foster this goal. For example, after dramatizing one parable, the cast agreed to stop using the word “master” because of its connotations of race-based slavery in the United States. In another such moment, a rich person who is damned quickly transforms into a “Karen,” demanding to speak to Jesus’s manager. Isabel Jordan performed “Day by Day” as a bilingual number, singing in both English and Spanish. “All Good Gifts” featured sign language from the entire ensemble. “Turn Back, O Man,” which is frequently performed by a woman as a sexy, vampy number was, in this production, a highlight of the show as a joyously queer song as Zach Williams teased the audience with high kicks in tight jeans, shouting “gender is a social construct!” at the end of the number. The strongest parts of the show were unabashedly earnest: Nicholas Edwards’s portrayal of a generous and loving Jesus, especially during the eleven o’clock number “Beautiful City,” and Alex Getlin’s gorgeous rendition of Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon’s haunting “By My Side.” There were many moments when it was clear that cast members wanted to be able to touch one another or embrace, and the show’s acknowledgment of this unrequited longing left everyone both sad and hopeful.
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