A Christmas present to North Florida: Godspell


by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM [email protected]

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Players by the Sea opened its Christmas present to North Florida with ”Godspell,” a true theatre classic. The opening was on December 6, and it will run through December 20, 2015. Players is located at 106 Sixth Street North in Jacksonville Beach. Call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org for additional information and reservations.

“Godspell,” which debuted in the early 70s, was conceived by John-Michael Tebelak, with music by a young Stephen Schwartz. The musical ran for five years and has remained popular. In 2011, for its 40th anniversary, the script was updated and Mr. Schwartz tweaked the musical arrangements. Both the original and the update present the lessons taught by Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of St. Matthew. However, the revision includes modern references: think Holiday Inn, pop tarts, Lindsay Lohan, Hilton Hotel, and yes, even Trump and Clinton!

Traditionally, the cast appeared in garb which reflected the time period of the Gospels (which is how the Alhambra Theatre costumed the cast in 1985 and 1990 productions), but those days are in the past. Directors love the challenge of setting classics in new times and places. A 1997 production by the Foundation Academy of Jacksonville Beach was set in New York, with brick walls and chain link fencing. Jacksonville University’s 1998 production was done with a backdrop from “Cabaret,” and a recent New York revival at a dinner theatre brought on the cast dressed as clowns.

Player’s version of Godspell is directed by Bradley Akers and he certainly knows this show inside and out, having been in the cast of Orange Park Community Theatre’s 2012 production. Akers has set the play in an a abandoned vaudeville house, featuring a colorful lighted archway mid-stage, crumbling side walls that expose wooden lathing, and a brick wall in the background. Additionally, the stage is filled with construction equipment used by the cast.

This production is high energy and appears to be done with younger audiences in mind. The first act, with eight songs filled with teachings, contains intricate stage movements and dancing; Jocelyn Geronimo is the choreographer. The costumes by Lindsay Curry are colorful, (reminding us of those worn in “Hair” although tie-dye is missing), and everyone wears Converse shoes.

Jesus is played by the personable Keaton Matthews, who comes into his own as a singer in Act Two with “Alas for You” and “Beautiful City.” In his first appearance, he is wearing tennis shorts and a tee shirt, both white, and is washed down with a sponge by his cousin John. During the rest of the show, he wears tan slacks and a red and white pull-over shirt. And red Converse shoes.

The play is filled with satirical skits that contain social lessons on how to treat our fellow inhabitants of the earth. These biblical parables are conveyed within songs, with each of the cast given a solo with which to shine.

As St. John the Baptist/ Judas, Mitchell Wohl is outstanding while singing the haunting “On the Willows.” Last year, he was in Theatre Jacksonville’s “Miracle Worker,” and we are happy to see him back on stage. We go back a long way with Wohl, and recall years ago when he was probably the smallest Tevye we have ever seen (but a very good Tevye) in the Jewish Community Alliance production of “Fiddler.”

Kristen Walsh, wearing a coonskin hat, sang well in “Light of the World,” and Carol Hardern had the perfect voice for “Bless the Lord.” Nicole Libal sang the inspiring “Learn Your Lessons Well” and was initially accompanied by a ukulele. Monique Franklin, making her Florida debut, sang the popular “By My Side.” Jemel Washington sang one of our favorite songs in this show “All Good Gifts;” the music was highlighted, as there was no accompanying background business. Sadie La Manna raised the roof with her vampy “Turn Back, O Man. Nikki Ignacio, a previous Pelican Award winner for Outstanding Choreography (Aida) impressed us with “Day by Day.” David Scott, who appeared previously in the ensembles of “Young Frankenstein “and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” led the cast in “We Beseech Thee,” and even did it on a trampoline.

The band hidden away behind that massive set was led by Musical Director Anthony Felton, also on keyboard, and included Alex Miller on guitar, David Ott on bass, and Greg Hersey on percussion. They performed with perfection.

Others on the Production Team included: Kathryne Krueger (Stage Manager), Ramona Ramdeen (Assistant Stage Manager), and Jim Wiggins (Lighting Designer).

We enjoyed the show, but preferred the second act as it was done at a slower place, reflecting the more serious issues faced by Jesus and his followers as Judas plots to betray him. The crucifixion scene is unique; we will leave the details for your discovery. We do have one suggestion: the scene could be more dramatic if a red spotlight, symbolic of the blood being shed, was used to focus on the dying Jesus.

Overall, with humor and joy and lots of innovative twists, “Godspell” brings the parables to life in a fun and accessible manner.

Others on the Production Team included: Kathryne Krueger (Stage Manager), Ramona Ramdeen (Assistant Stage Manager), Bradley Akers & Joe Schwarz (Scenic Design) and Jim Wiggins (Lighting Designer).

Next up for Players is “Cotton Alley,” an original drama by local playwright and actress Olivia Gowan, which opens January 15, 2016.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.