Here's the temptation in staging Godspell, the ubiquitous musical based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. It is so easy to lapse into pretension, and not even pious pretension -- simplistic pretension. If you mindlessly play into the show's original 1971 concept, in which the actors paint their faces gooey-cute and dress like Raggedy Ann and Little Bo-Peep, the entire endeavor can become so precious, you want to gag.
Another danger: Over the years, I've seen many a Godspell in which the young cast had a fine time singing the tuneful Stephen Schwartz songs. ("Day by Day" is so joyous, it has become a theater anthem.) Yet those same actors were at sea when it came to making sense of the Biblical parables about Pharisees and tax collectors, seed-sowers and prodigal sons, adulterers and stone-throwers.
So here's the good news about the current offering at Fontbonne University. This Godspell delivers an absorbing, at times thrilling, evening of musical theater. Initially rambunctious and irrepressible, in time the production moves into the realm of the spiritual, finally rising to moments of epiphany. You enter the theater thinking you know this show like the back of your hand; you leave having experienced a musical you've never seen before.
How do you instill originality in a show that is so familiar? You begin by placing its modus -- acting out Jesus' teachings, especially the Sermon on the Mount, through story theater -- in a new context. Here, the evening begins with a specially created slide-show prologue that chronicles a litany of the world's woes. Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden are among the tyrants whose oppressive images fill the screens. So from the get-go we understand this Godspell's universe, which, for a refreshing change, is also our universe.
The actors then enter, not as they usually do, looking like a bunch of sandbox ragamuffins, but as people off the street -- all sorts of streets. Here, a society swell; there, a transvestite. For just a moment, there seems to be no focus. But as soon as John the Baptist (Brett Howell) appears, singing "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," his clarion call resounds with a piercing clarity that only rarely forsakes the evening. When Jesus (William Borgmeyer) arrives -- clad not in his traditional Superman T-shirt (thank you very much) but instead garbed as a firefighter -- you know that, regardless of whether you agree with everything that's occurring onstage, a mind is at work.
That mind belongs to director Ken Page, the veteran performer of such celebrated Broadway musicals as Cats and Ain't Misbehavin'. In what appears to be an intensely personal production, Page informs us that, saddened though he is by world events past and present, he has an abiding faith in the future.
But not only does the evening convey Page's love of life, it reflects his love of theater. Watch for an allusion to West Side Story, a touch of Stomp, a pinch of Hair. The entire evening is like a musical-theater glossary. Yet the overall effect is not of something borrowed; rather, it jells into a production that feels startlingly new. From a liberal use of aluminum wrap to the unexpected inclusion of rap music, a limitless imagination is at play here. You keep wondering when this show is going to run out of steam. It never does.
The cast comprises eight students and three guest performers. One of those guests, George M. Jones, displays a rich standout voice on the song "All Good Gifts." But by evening's end, director Page has managed to showcase every cast member. Regardless of experience, each performer has the opportunity to take pride in his or her individuality.
Of course, there are a few snags. The exuberant four-piece band rocks the theater with a tidal wave of sound, but sometimes the fervent music drowns out the singers. When that happens, be patient. Everything will right itself soon enough. And some of Schwartz's tongue-twister lyrics trip the actors' tongues. Again, not to worry, for what you come to realize is this: It's not necessary to hear every word being spoken to understand what Godspell is trying to say.
A note: The 23-year-old Stephen Schwartz followed the 1971 off-Broadway Godspell one year later with his first Broadway musical, Pippin. Retooled by Bob Fosse into a long-running hit, Pippin is as perennially popular, especially with student audiences, as Godspell. This week Pippin receives a full-blown Webster University student production on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center. If you want to hear Schwartz at his most youthful and ebullient, here is your serendipitous opportunity for a double dip.