Chicago Theatre Review
Prepare Ye the Way of a Hit
Godspell – Marriott
It’s hard to believe that a musical that began life as a college thesis project only to become an Off-Broadway theatrical sensation almost 45 years ago continues to be popular with professional and educational theatres, alike. John-Michael Tebelak’s script, with a pop score by Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Wicked”), is loosely based upon the life and parables of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. If audiences don’t know the Biblical text or the entire musical they’ll at least be familiar with most of the score. “Day By Day,” with its simple lyrics and catchy melody, became a hit single back in the 70’s and it continues to be a staple among choral groups and church choirs.
What appeals to audiences is not necessarily the play’s religious themes but its positive message of humanity. Especially significant today, the play serves as a reminder to treat our fellow man the way in which we’d like to be treated. What appeals to directors is that Tbelak and Schwartz’s libretto is so flexible and allows a production team’s creative juices to flow, making every production a uniquely different experience. Thomas M. Ryan, Marriott’s resident scenic designer, created an open playing area of colorful platforms beneath an expansive, wooden-puzzle-like tree. Director/choreographer Matt Raftery then had his company draw, paint, cut, paste and generally craft the rest of the theatre environment, thereby adding their own personal stamp. Not only is the setting a one-of-a-kind creation, but the cast bonded in the process while developing ownership in their production.
Raftery has not only cast an exciting, talented company of ten fresh, young actors, but he’s brought his production into the 21st century. Incorporating cell phones, twittering and selfies, along with many current cultural references, the director has created a “Godspell” with which today’s audiences can connect. The original 1971 Off-Broadway production featured a group of characters dressed as colorful clowns; Raftery has costume coordinator Erin Wuorenma outfit his cast in bright contemporary wear. Jesse Klug’s sparkling lighting design, especially the play’s breathtaking final moments, is electrifying. Raftery’s brisk staging, slick choreography and flashy tricks and trifles continually surprise and delight.
Brian Bohr, who has demonstrated his talent as an actor/singer/dancer not only at the Marriott but all over the country, is superb as Jesus. Simply dressed in a turquoise polo shirt and white jeans, this handsome, approachable young man is the embodiment of a kind, learned and charismatic spiritual leader. In musical numbers like “Save the People,” “Beautiful City” and the dramatic “Alas for You” Mr. Bohr demonstrates a generous star quality that’s so appropriate for this role.
Devin De Santis, fresh off his success in the title role of Drury Lane’s “Young Frankenstein,” is vocally triumphant and physically commanding in the dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas. His vaudevillian duet with Bohr, “All for the Best,” is a real showstopper, as is his call to worship, “Prepare Ye” and his touching “On the Willows.” Watch for this young actor to be playing more leading roles to come.
The rest of the company is terrific and each has his turn to shine in the spotlight. Lillie Cummings is the sweet, bespectacled, nerdy-looking songstress who charms both Jesus and the audience with her lovely rendition of “Day by Day.” Samantha Pauly comically vamps her way down the aisles as Mary Magdalene purring, “Turn Back, O Man.” Elizabeth Lanza, so brilliant as Nellie Forbush in Marriott’s recent production of “South Pacific,” harmonizes in the show’s most beautiful number, the heartfelt “By My Side.” Eliza Palasz lets loose, wailing wonderously in “Bless the Lord” and Christine Mild humorously reminds the audience to “Learn Your Lessons Well.” The elfin Zachary Piser captivates playgoers with his rousing “We Beseech Thee,” Nate Lewellyn closes the first act with his buoyant “Light of the World” and Tom Vendafreddo leaves an indelible mark in his Marriott debut as an astounding singer, performer and onstage keyboardist. He’s especially good in his outstandingly sung and played “All Good Gifts.”
Beginning as an educational exercise and going on to become one of the world’s best-loved musicals, Marriott’s takes this beautiful show and makes it sing. Ranking among some of its best recent productions, it’s the perfect way to spend a summer evening in the suburbs. Directed and choreographed by the multitalented, always impressive and continually growing Matt Raftery, this show overflows with strong voices, talented dancers, Patti Garwood’s terrific musical accompaniment and simply bursts with creativity and heart. Prepare Ye the way for a huge hit!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 4-August 10 by the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-634-0200 or by going to www.MarriottTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.