The set-up: If there's any Broadway musical that's ripe material for A.D. Players it's Stephen Schwartz's folksy story of Christ and His message, Godspell (1971). The fit is beyond reproach. In a glorious production bolstered by heartfelt performances, this Sunday school lesson masquerading as a musical explodes into one of their most satisfying shows in memory.
The execution: Broadway in 1970/71 had two God shows running simultaneously: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Vegas revue Jesus Christ Superstar, glitzy and irrelevant, and Schwartz's Godspell, simple and homespun. As if it had wafted in from San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, the Schwartz musical is all hippy and feel-good, and you can almost smell the patchouli if not the pot wafting backstage. This is a "let's put on a show" show, and we must believe that the actors, who use their actual first names for their characters, have just wandered on stage and started to play act. That these pros at A.D. carry off such quaint pretense so completely and with such innocence is one of the marvels of this production. They are a happy colorful tribe in their tennis shoes and counterculture garb. At any moment you expect them to burst into Hair.
After some brief exposition, Act I heralds Jesus' arrival and showcases many of his parables. They're acted out either as a game of Pictionary or charades, or comic sketches with the kids acting like sheep, goats, Pharisees, the good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son. The twee factor is fairly high, but the sincerity is genuine. And Schwartz's best music occurs here - John the Baptist's "Prepare Ye," ushered in by shofar; the uptempo "Learn Your Lessons Well;" the ragtime vaudeville "All For the Best;" and the show's #1 hit tune, the lilting "Day By Day."
Act II goes much darker, since we know where the story is headed, as the show switches into biography of Christ's last days. "We Beseech Thee" and the haunting "On the Willows" capture the mood of the disciples completely, although Schwartz ineptly mishandles the Crucifixion. The passion is beyond him. The lyrics, "I'm bleeding, I'm dying, I'm dead," sung in high head tone, are terribly prosaic next to the Gospel's "It is finished" or "Father forgive them..."
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Director Kevin Dean overlays the Bible lessons with an improvisational wash that the actors lap up. Each is his own character, while still being an integral part of the group. Throughout, little touches keep the show surprisingly fresh and nimble. Although this show depends for its goodwill on its fine-tuned ensemble, I must mention five: Braden Hunt (who also did the exceptionally fluid, varied, and inventive choreography) has unquenchable presence on stage; Stephanie Bradow possesses comic timing and vocal pipes; Jennifer Gilbert smolders like a good girl gone bad in "Turn Back, O Man;" Joey Watkins is a forceful but regular-guy Jesus; and reed-thin Daniel Miller, like Ray Bolger on a caffeine high, bounds all over the set, an old-time Broadway trooper. His is the new face to watch in the future.
Robin Gillock's set design, a series of roughly constructed platforms that roll on casters, can be configured in many eye-catching ways, which allows the cast to drape themselves over, around, and on top. It's their jungle gym. Donna Southern Schmidt's costumes are wonderfully loopy: a ballerina skirt, a mauve suit, bright leggings, a bit of Woodstock, T-shirt and jeans for Jesus. Together, it all works. Andrew Vance's precise lighting turns on a dime from bright new day to the steamy red temptation by a host of Satans. The musical quintet (guitars and percussion) sits upstage, and although the orchestration is lighter than expected, the vocal are so lush - and lushly song by all - we don't miss more instruments.
The verdict: The Parables' message is simple: love God, your neighbor, your enemy. There's elegance in that, as well as taking a lifetime of work to perfect. A.D. Players lets Schwartz's funky musical reveal its simplicity naturally. What moves us so powerfully is not so much his music, but His music. The cast sings both exceedingly well.
Godspell runs through August 24 at A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. Purchase tickets online at adplayers.org or call 713-526-2721. $34-$47.