BWW Reviews: GODSPELL at Notre Dame is a Joyous Occasion
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by Giordana Segneri
With Godspell enjoying a renaissance in popularity following its recent revival on Broadway, it seems everyone wants in on the fun. And that's the beauty of Godspell-it's an occasion to rejoice, to delight in the irreverent retelling of the parables in the Gospel according to Matthew, to feel good about faith-whether you share this particular set of tenets or not-and, well, to jump around in your seat and rock out along with Jesus.
The actresses of the undergraduate women's college at Notre Dame of Maryland University embrace the production with gusto, their love of the story and their spirit and verve shining through every number.
As I mentioned in a review of a professional production last fall, Godspell has been performed thousands of times since it first opened off Broadway in its more-or-less current format in 1971, so when audiences go to see the musical, it's because they want to appreciate what a particular cast, director, choreographer, musical director and others will lend to the show. This is the first time I've seen this production tackled by a cast composed exclusively of women, and despite the initial peculiarity of adjusting to a female Jesus, it was easy to settle into the joyous celebration unfolding on stage.
The performance opens with the cast-hooded, robed and carrying candles-entering from the back of the house, progressing single file up an aisle and chanting, monk-like, in a striking harmony. This piece, noted as "Parados (Dies Irae)" in the program, is Notre Dame's addition to the soundtrack; once the actresses take the stage, they disrobe to reveal jeans and white T-shirts stenciled with the names of the philosophers they portray in the production's traditional opening number, "Tower of Babble (Prologue)." Of particular note in this ensemble and rather cacophonous scene is freshman Jazmin Greene, who has a clear, sweet, standout voice and and whose contributions later in the show to the gorgeously harmonized "By My Side" are also exceptional.
Once John the Baptist enters (again, down the aisle), impressively blowing a real shofar and launching the performance's first truly upbeat number, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," the live three-person band ramps up its electric performance and gets the ensemble shaking. At times, given the cavernous space on the stage and the acoustics, the band drowns out the actresses' voices, which often approach the songs at a higher octave than perhaps intended. Jesus (Kristin Lily Ali Cathings), in particular, has a voice that comes across as rather dainty and could benefit from a microphone. She also relies heavily on reading her spoken lines (and often stumbling over them) from a book-a surprising allowance on the director's part.
After their baptism, the disciples-a diverse group of women with impressive voices across the board-return to the stage in brightly colored T-shirts. One of the joys of Godspell, often, is the freedom it offers costume designers to express themselves and go wild, regularly resulting in a zany mixture of colors, textures, fabrics and patterns, so the minimalist approach to the cast's outfits is slightly disappointing.
There are several standout performances, including John the Baptist/Judas' (Norma Gomez, the only actress who seems to have professional experience) rendition of "Bless the Lord" and Jesus and Judas' high-spirited back-and-forth on "All for the Best." Sammi Ciuchta's delight in performing the sultry "Turn Back, O Man" is contagious. And, as mentioned earlier, Greene and Megan Sheppard take on the mesmerizing and flawlessly harmonized "By My Side" with aplomb. But generally, the ensemble numbers are stronger than the solos.
At the beginning of Act II, when a few of these solos take place, the cast seems to race through the first few numbers without much plot. Even still, the performance as a whole is laced with the energy and joy of actresses who truly love what they do and love the story they're telling. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see several of these young women on professional stages in the very near future.
Godspell runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday through March 4 at Notre Dame of Maryland University's LeClerc Auditorium, 4701 N. Charles St. in Baltimore. Its next production, Mama from Ghana written by a Notre Dame of Maryland University graduate student, opens in April. For more information, visit events.ndm.edu.