REVIEW: Godspell

I sat there in the middle of the first act thinking to myself that either Katie Johanningman is a flipping genius or completely insane . . . but either way, man does she create incredible theatre.  She made her CCM directing debut last year with a quiet musical about love and relationships; this year she was given a classic musical that many people count among their absolute favorites.  GODSPELL has certainly  a higher profile than THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY.  It’d be relatively easy to screw it up.  It might make some director’s timid.  Just stick with the traditional standard issue version, one might decide.

Not this director.

Instead, assisted by senior Zack Triska, Johanningman goes full on 2018 re-imagining, with modern references, millennial-infused asides, and some outrageous comedy.  But what is amazing is that despite the update – or maybe because of it – the message of the show seems even more powerful than ever.  GODSPELL, the musical, is timely and timeless.  But we need the message of love – the same one from the Biblical Book of Matthew –  more now than ever.

Despite being in the Cohen Family Studio, this show feels like a big budget spectacle.  Scenic Designer Joshua E. Gallagher creates a construction site in the back lot of an old Catholic school for the transcendent performances, which are beautifully lit by Frank Viskup.  Sound Designer Hankyu Lee almost achieves perfection in execution, a rarity for any musical.  Rachel Boylans’ costumes and Oran Wongpandid’s hair and wig design is consistent with the tone and setting and attitude of the production.

As is the norm for CCM, the performances are above average and really put every all other locally produced musical productions within over 100 miles of Cincinnati to shame.  Madison Deadman, a female, is cast as Jesus and leads the ensemble with charisma and light.  Another Madison, the male Madison Adams Hagler, plays both Judas and John the Baptist and is equally charismatic.  His comedic chops and stage presence belie his experience as a magician prior to his musical theatre conservatory training.

The ensemble features solid cohesive performances, with some stand out solos worth mentioning.  Delaney Gueyer soars on “Day by Day,” while Jenny Mollet gives “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul” a gospel flair.  Dylan Mulvaney ignites “Light of the World” and John Collins shows that he’s got the vocal chops to match his comedic performance on “We Beseech Thee.”  Jack Brewer gives a powerhouse vocal performance on “All Good Gifts,” while Maddie Vandenberg continues her four-year streak of consistently solid performances on “Learn Your Lessons Well.”  Camila Paquet has a sweet turn on “By My Side,” while Bryce Baxter delivers a show-stopping number with “Turn Back, O Man.”

Separately, they all sing well. Of course.  But together the power and synchrony on stage in this production is stunning.  Steve Goers unseen band (though we do get a brief cameo from him in Act One) supports the vocals with great sound balance and the show builds to a loud, jarring climax.

I couldn’t decide at first if this show was brilliant or nuts.  But either way, I was near tears multiple times. I was inspired. I was moved.  I loved it.  It really is an amazing production.

As an aside, we need more positivity in the world. This review will be one of my most widely read this year.  Meanwhile the New York Times recently published a scathing “dialogue” between middle-aged cynical men trashing a production. If they defend themselves, they might say it’s because those kinds of pieces drive their numbers.  But I know better.  The reviews I’ve written that get the most hits are of shows that were phenomenal. Like this one.   Praise, positivity, and constructive criticism do get hits.  Trashing a show is easy.  We can do better.

GODSPELL runs two more times this weekend; you can join the waitlist an hour before show time. Click here for more information.