July 11, 2021
Prepare Ye – for great musical theatre
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
What a grand setting to begin an alluring summer season of theatrical delights. The big tent is raised, with breezes blowing through, comforting the audiences. The Des Moines Community Playhouse has few peers nationally, and we in Central Iowa are blessed to have such a leading force producing its range of exceptional programming for us. Launching this summer’s performance magic is the beloved musical, Godspell. This 50th anniversary production is the 2011 revival version, with some updates and new harmonies, but anchored by the engaging stories, humor and music that first captured the hearts and souls of the world in 1971. And revival is the appropriate word, as this setting allows this show to reverberate through our hearts, the tent, and the community.
There is an irresistible timelessness about this Stephen Schwartz (composer) and John-Michael Tebelak (book) musical. Songs that became standards well beyond the boundaries of Broadway, such as “Day by Day,” “All Good Gifts,” and “By My Side,” anchor a series of parables that remind us all about essential values for a kinder, more compassionate way of living. The beauty of this biblically-based masterpiece is that the content is for anyone who desires a better world, while teaching us ways to contribute to its improvement.
Director/Artistic Director Katy Merriman guides a stellar production team to create this exuberant experience. While this production draws elements from its revival repolishing a decade ago, its core remains a joyful, playful and meaningful romp through parables contained in the gospel according to St. Matthew. Merriman’s cast is bursting with unfettered energy, an ensemble dynamo that performs with focused delivery. Colorful, representative costuming is conjured by Angela Lampe. Musical direction is crafted by Brenton Brown. Alex Snodgrass and David Kilpatrick combine for scenic design and lighting, respectively. The true catalyst driving this show is its choreography, masterfully conceived by the ever-imaginative Megan Helmers. This cohesive cast delivers Helmers’ array of spontaneous-applause producing production numbers with an enthusiasm that leaves the audience almost as breathless as the performers.
The show opens with the challenging “Tower of Babble,” an unfurling of anachronistic monologues from famous philosophers that builds into its titled cacophony. This could have used a little more precision for a clearer delivery of this complex number. Once John the Baptist (Nathaniel Han) beckons with his warm singing voice, the babble quickly segues into the joyous “Prepare Ye.” The energy continues to build into anticipatory euphoria with “Save the People” as Jesus (Peter Noll) enters. Noll’s singing is both evocative and strong, and his gentle shepherding of his new flock through the series of parables and songs is powerful, thoughtful and, well, offers guidance for salvation.
This ensemble works together, like a well-oiled musical movement machine, shifting effortlessly from scene to scene, and song to song, with dazzling fluidity. Each cast member – Patrick Carew, Alexis Castro, Mar Feitelson, Shelby Kephart, Abigail Phelps, Kaylee Reininga, Sophie Rounds, Marisa Spahn, and Caroline Walton – uses their own first name for the performance, and each shines in this constant Godspell-ian ebb and flow of wisdom, performance and singing. Highlights include Caroline’s sassy, saucy “Turn Back, O Man”; Alexis’ soaring, ethereal “All Good Gifts”; Sophie’s buoyant leadership in “Day by Day”; Marissa’s rousing revival, full alleluia-chorus-backup rendition of “Bless the Lord”; and, Kaylee taking “Learn Your Lessons Well” from a quick toss-off musical tag into a dynamically memorable feature. The audience’s greatest response in this highlight-filled production was for Noll and Han in “All for the Best,” a choreographical masterpiece that would have made Busby Berkeley proud. Had this tent had rafters, they would have been ringing.
Godspell is a show that everyone should see, probably several times, in their life. Its lessons and music are universal, and will resonate with everyone whenever they experience it in their life journey. This Godspell is not to be missed – a more unified ensemble, dynamically charged and creatively conceived production will not be seen again anytime soon. The Playhouse performing this Godspell in a tent adds that signature flair that makes this show one that will be long remembered – get your tickets so that you, too, will part of those fond, reflective memories.
The Culture Buzz theatre reviews are written by professional writers to inform and enlighten. To receive weekly newsletters, email TheCultureBuzz@gmail.com or visit www.TheCultureBuzz.com. The Culture Buzz is a weekly broadcast/streaming arts & entertainment collection of conversations, airing Wednesdays 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM Central Time on KFMG 98.9 FM and streaming at www.kfmg.org.