Godspell is not a show for cynics. Anyone regarding Jesus' mission or message with a jaundiced eye would be better served by that other messianic musical of the early Seventies, the one rife with political intrigues and questions about Jesus' divinity and the effectiveness of his media strategy. This one's too rooted in that era's belief that all you need is love, its hippie faith in a child's view of the world: openly accepting and affectionate, driven by play and a sense of wonder. It's a show that depends on innocence – truly childlike innocence, as it demonstrates most clearly when the cast departs from Stephen Schwartz's score to sing "Jesus Loves Me," a hymn that distills Christian theology into the simplest, purest expressions of the very young.
The performers in Austin Theatre Project's production take this attitude to heart, approaching their roles with the exuberance of children on a playground. They beam, they bubble, they bounce. Their playful clowning as they act out Gospel parables and their emotional embraces of one another feel right out of the summer camps of youth. (And with its folkie guitars, face-painting, goofing around, and intense bonding of the cast, hasn't Godspell always been the Summer Camp of Musicals?) At times, as with kids, the actors' enthusiasm gets the better of them and they get a little carried away, losing some of the point and purpose of the parables in flurries of unfocused comedic energy and ad-libbed remarks. (Exceptions to this are Travis Martin, whose calm, affability, and willingness to kid make his Jesus, like, the coolest camp counselor ever; and Brian Losoya, whose Judas hangs on the group's fringes, hands in pockets, like the kid who feels he's outgrown the games his friends still play.) What makes the musical numbers among the most engaging and affecting parts of this Godspell are that the ensemble's high spirits are channeled in specific, directed ways. Choreographer Sara Burke challenges the cast with some fleet footwork, and the performers prove themselves as nimble as they are lively.
But it may be when there's no action at all to speak of that this production feels most true to the musical by Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. This cast is blessed with lovely voices, well directed by David Blackburn, and when a performer is allowed to concentrate on the song without elaborate movement – as in Amanda Serra's fresh and heartfelt rendition of "Day by Day" or when Joseph Ruelle's high tenor wings through "Beautiful City" – the heart of Godspell is truly revealed: its deep-seated gratitude, its desire for betterment, its unabashed optimism. This is a show for the hopeful, for those who recognize the hardships and hard hearts of the world as it is, but who believe that change is possible, that through love and faith and hands working together, a better world can be built. Austin Theatre Project's Godspell serves up a lot of animated fun, but in its still, small moments, clouds part and we're bathed in a lovely light.
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