Rep Puts New Shine on ‘Godspell’

Much recent criticism of the musical “Godspell” has complained that the 1971 hit has not aged well. The play doesn’t seem nearly as subversive as it once did, its pop-rock musical stylings are now heard in most Protestant churches, and aside from those songs, the well-known stories from scripture, as acted out by a bunch of outsiders, seem bland.

So there’s a need to breathe new life into the golden oldie, which the Rochester Repertory Theatre tries valiantly to do in a production that opened last Friday.

Director Samantha Gibson, who directed last season’s hit musical “The Spitfire Grill,” has set “Godspell” in modern times in a New York City subway station (the River Jordan Station). So much for the hippies and circus of the original. And, where traditional productions of “Godspell” have tended to feature young casts, Gibson has pulled in everything from teens to, well, RJ Traff, who was in the show the last time the Rep did it 30 years ago.

The show’s signature song, “Day by Day,” is touchingly performed by high school student Antoinette St. Godard. Among the Rep newcomers, Genie Theis solos on the lovely ballad “All Good Gifts.”

The strongest singing though, comes when the entire cast sings as a chorus, providing a swelling, full sound. “O Bless the Lord, My Soul” is one example; the reprise of “Day by Day” is another.

John Shaffer makes his Rep debut as Jesus, with Mitch Gibson in a strong performance as John the Baptist and Judas. Also in the cast are Alex Beerling, Jacob Dreher, Michele Nyman, Lisa Modry, Susanna Spencer, and, of course, Traff, who has made a welcome return to local stages in  recent seasons after a long layoff.

Dreher also designed the multi-level set, which is a convincing replica of a New York subway platform–minus the rats.

If anything, this cast might be over-rehearsed. Too many of the ad libs feel prepared in advance. At times, the mugging for laughs seems counter to the serious message of the parables being told by Jesus. Maybe that’s the point: Nobody’s really listening to him or taking him seriously.

There’s no doubt that this show requires an incredible amount of energy and stamina, and Gibson’s cast never appears to run out of steam, even in a warm theater on a humid opening night.

Give credit to Gibson for realizing the “Godspell,” with its timeless message of love for one another, needed to be refurbished and updated. Maybe the Rep won’t wait 30 years before doing it again.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   September 17, 2018

Rep Brings Back ‘Godspell’ 30 Years Later

The last time Rochester Repertory Theatre staged the musical “Godspell,” the Rep was only four years old, it was located on the second floor of a building on South Broadway, and RJ Traff was in the cast. That was 1988.

Well, now it’s 2018, and the Rep is presenting “Godspell” once again. The Rep is now celebrating its 35th season, and has been located on Seventh Street Northeast for over a decade. And RJ Traff is once again in the cast.

“RJ is back,” said Samantha Gibson, who is directing “Godspell” for the Rep. The play opens Sept. 7.

There’s something else familiar from that 1988 production. That year, “Godspell” was so popular with audiences that the run of the show was extended. This year, an extra date has already been added to the run, even though “Godspell” hasn’t even opened yet. The demand for tickets is ahead of normal expectations, Gibson said.

All of which could make the director and cast feel some extra pressure about opening a milestone season in front of an expectant audience.

However, Gibson, who directed last spring’s hit “The Spitfire Grill,” doesn’t see it that way.

“This is such a well-loved show,” she said. “I feel like it’s going to be a show everybody will enjoy. You’re going to walk out feeling good about yourself.”

“Godspell,” which had its New York debut in 1971, is a musical retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew. In some ways, the play is a product of an era when everything, including the Bible, was up for re-examination. Even those who never saw a production of the show were fans of the original score recording, which included the hit “Day by Day.”

“The music is easily my favorite part,” Gibson said.

For this production, Gibson is setting “Godspell” on a subway platform in modern-day New York City.

“I was thinking of ways to modernize it,” she said. “They had a junkyard scene in the original, and I was thinking of a place where all these people would come together.”

In New York that would be a subway platform, where commuters from all walks of life find themselves in the same place at the same time.

Although “Godspell” is based on the Bible, it is not preachy, Gibson said.

“They make it a lot more relatable for everybody,” she said. “I think this show can really reach out to everyone. It’s really about community, about finding a family.”

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   September 6, 2018

‘Eurydice’ is Rep Theatre’s Summer Offering

Jessica Schuler, playing “Eurydice,” and Scott Regener, playing “Father,” during a rehearsal for Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Eurydice” Sunday, June 17, 2018, in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com

 

In recent seasons, Rochester Repertory Theatre has presented light-hearted comedies and farces during the summer. This year, the summer offering is “Eurydice,” based on the myth of Orpheus, where – spoiler alert – the title character dies on her wedding day and journeys to the underworld.

“When I tell people about the play, I usually follow up with, ‘It’s a comedy,’” said Kami Sim, who is directing the show. “It’s a dramatic comedy. A lot of the bittersweet moments are followed up with comedy.”

In “Eurydice,” “dying does happen,” Sim said. “But it’s not a sad thing. It’s more joyous because she’s reuniting with her father.” Jessica Schuler, playing “Eurydice,” and Scott Regener, playing “Father,” during a rehearsal for Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Eurydice” Sunday, June 17, 2018, in Rochester.’ 

Comedy, drama, sad, joyous, whatever, “Eurydice,” by Sarah Ruhl, is a play Sim has wanted to tackle for some time. “It’s a show I worked on in college and I’ve always wanted to do it,” she said. “This is my first chance.”

She was attracted to the story because “It features a strong female lead, something not a lot of shows have,” Sim said. “I’m adamant about doing shows with female actors, female directors, and by female playwrights.”

Sim has cast Jessica Schuler as Eurydice. Also in the cast are Sean Lundberg, Jake Sprafka, Scott Regener, James Denzer, Kara Haack, and Jackson Davidson. “I was looking for a sense of humor (and) for comedic timing,” Sim said of her cast. 

While the play takes place in a mythic time, Sim said audience will see today’s world reflected on stage. 

“It’s about relationships and listening to each other,” she said. “It’s like when you’re with someone and you’re not truly present with them, you’re on your phone.”

By Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   June 24, 2018