No one goes to see Godspell for its surprise ending. The story is timeless and unchanging as it weaves its way colorfully, heartwarmingly and melodically through the Gospel according to Matthew. Since it first opened in its more-or-less current format off Broadway in 1971, it's been performed any number of thousands of times. So when people go to see Godspell, they go to see it for what the Production Company will lend the story to make it its own.
The Vagabond Players opened Godspell Oct. 14, nearly simultaneously with the Broadway revival's preview, which leads up to an official Nov. 7 debut (the Vagabond Players have stated, in fact, their gratefulness for not having the rights to the production pulled). In the Vags' intimate, historic space, the production takes on a very participatory quality that-in its hugeness-breaks right through the fourth wall and draws the audience in.
Before that can happen, however, it gets off to a little bit of a strange start. In making the production truly Baltimore-specific, the opening scene involves four young children breaking into an abandoned, apparently haunted theater (indicated in the program as being the Vagabond Players Theatre) with the intention of having some fun with spray paint.
A lone shade-less lightbulb begins flickering, and the voice of God, declaring his supremacy, is broadcast from off stage. The adult ensemble enters, dressed entirely in black and hiding their masked faces behind dusty books; these are history's great philosophers, who sing their perspectives on religion in a number, "Tower of Babble," that is often excluded from performances of Godspell. The cacophonous climax of the piece comes to a truly bizarre end when the children hold up their own headshots in front of their faces. The meaning is lost on me.
When John the Baptist enters with a triumphant rendition of "Prepare Ye" (sadly sans shofar blowing) that really revs up when the excellent live band kicks in, the performance regains its ground. Calling out from his seat in the audience, Jesus, beautifully brought to life by Dan McQuay, joins John (Darren McDonnell) on stage to be baptized from his yellow painter's bucket. The remainder of the adult cast members flood the stage in their zany rainbow of vibrant patchwork, stripes, neon and metallic lame-traditional Godspell costuming-and the show takes off, winding its way through a series of endearingly performed, laugh-out-loud parables and on-point musical numbers.
In another Vags-original touch (at least, I've never seen it done before), the parables include snippets of numbers from other famed musicals: Annie, Evita, Fiddler, Joseph, Sweeney Todd and more. While these short renditions are well performed, nicely integrated and clever, they may be a little disconcerting to Godspell purists-as may be the child actors, whose presence seems superfluous and slightly distracting as they scamper around stage, participating somewhat but not fully. An exception is Matthew Demetrides, whose mostly solo performance of "On the Willows," one of the most poignant numbers in the score, is emotional and haunting.
The adult ensemble is to be lauded for its energy and obvious devotion to the performance; it's clear the actors love this show and believe in the story. As soloists, the performers are quite good across the board (of special note is Eileen Keenan Aubele and Susannah Hurlburt Lock's exquisite performance of "By My Side"), but as a chorus, they're phenomenal. Their voices are so powerful and unified that they hit the back wall of the theater and reverberate, absolutely filling the space.
The accompanying choreography is appropriate-never overdone so as to be trite but never lacking-and the acting is convincing. Sarah Ford Gorman's disciple is charismatic and adorable (and her beatboxing is an impressive addition to "We Beseech Thee"). And the comic relief from J Hargrove and Brandon Shaw elicits joyous audience reaction.
As Jesus, McQuay is entirely believable: He's endearing, calm and sensitive, exudes emotion and is, well, blessed with a strong, steady voice. He gives the audience no reason to question why the disciples are so devoted to him. Together with McDonnell as Judas Iscariot (as called for in the script, the same actor plays both John the Baptist and Judas), McQuay creates appropriate and palpable tension-and the violence and despair displayed by all in the final scene, when Jesus is cleverly hoisted onto a PVC cross, is torturous even for the audience.