There are some shows for some audiences that never grow old. No matter how dated the music or how lacking in narrative beyond that which the audience brings to it, “Godspell” is one of those shows, and perhaps for nowhere more than conservative Christian stronghold Holland, Michigan.
It helps tremendously that Hope Summer Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director Lenny Banovez has been dreaming of directing John-Michael Tebelak’s classic ’70s rock musical inspired by the Bible with music by Stephen Schwartz for 20 years — and that his vision brought to fruition on stage reflects his ambition and passion for “Godspell.” It also helps that he worked with a wildly talented and enthusiastic cast of diverse performers (more than half are people of color, historically an unfortunately rare occurrence at Hope) as well as a truly kick-ass rock band led by Music Director Alex Thompson.
It is for these reasons, as well as the storyline that glorifies the life of Jesus through a dramatization of biblical parables that lead to a quick Passion of Christ finale, that the Hope Summer Repertory audience leapt to its feet in standing ovation opening night. It is the right show for the right audience. And no matter how tired it may be to some of us, this production of “Godspell” is as good as it gets with interesting choices and contemporary touches — and beloved by those who are flocking to it.
In Banovez’s vision, Jesus’s disciples are a tribe of soulful, ecstatic, childlike followers who often drop to the ground like kindergartners when he speaks, hanging on every last of his good words — the Golden Rule and “pray for your enemies” and “your goodness must know no bounds” and “love is love is love is love is love is love is love” among them. The beatitudes come to life as call and response, Jesus’s baptism appears as a stream of water from above caught in a pool center stage below a grate trap, Jesus and Judas do a soft shoe number, and lessons are acted out as charades with more than a touch of tongue-in-cheek.
It’s as cheeky as the greatest story ever told can be, less fire and brimstone, and more community centered, shot through with love.
Benjamin Lohrberg is a charismatic Jesus, yet appropriately gentle and sings with a powerful yet sweet vibrato. There’s no question why this tribe wants him for their leader.
Other standout performances include Marcus Martin’s very pretty “All Good Gifts” and Sara Ornelas’s dynamic huge voice and energy in the big gospel number “Bless The Lord” as well as her opening of Act II in which she single-handedly reprises the entirety of Act I with flair.
Visually, this show is somewhat minimal but in a compelling way. Sarah Pearline’s set, like a semi-circular skate ramp upstage with scaffolding amid which the band members are nestled, allows the players to climb and slide like a game of chutes and ladders, albeit one upon which Christ is crucified. It’s a cool concept and functions beautifully with Peter Sargent’s lighting, at turns warm and stark, with naked lightbulbs hanging from above. Leslie Vaglica’s costumes are essentially street clothes, supporting the “of the people” contemporary vibe of the show.
J.M. Rebudal’s choreography is well executed by the energetic ensemble, though it’s somewhat uninspired, set largely in clusters as if pseudo hip-hop line dancing with little to distinguish between numbers. But Alex Thompson on keyboards, Kallie Zeinstra on bass guitar, Tom Parks on drums, and Don Hooker on guitar create such powerful melodious noise together, even what looks like spontaneous rhythmic movement from the performers is fun.
And ultimately, even for those of us who don’t inherently love “Godspell,” Director Lenny Banovez’s curtain speech is undoubtedly true when he claims that this show is his greatest achievement and that the talent of this cast is limitless and their futures are bright.
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
July 20-Aug. 8