by Jackie Hamilton
"Godspell" is the archaic old English word for "gospel." The play "Godspell" is a musical, hippy-dippy interpretive look at the Gospel of Matthew.
Written by John-Michael Tebelak in 1970, it's one of the longest running off-Broadway musicals. Because there are no explicit set instructions in the play, it's been performed in multiple creative ways. Directors love it for the versatility.
Here in Gwinnett, the county's newest professional theater company, The Button Theatre, is making its inaugural performance with "Godspell." The play is directed by IJ Rosenblum.
The stage is simple - chairs set in four groups around the performers in the middle of the floor. Don't worry about the casual set, however. Excellent sound and lighting add plenty of professionalism. The actors supply the rest.
The story literally spins the parables and stories of the Gospel of Matthew, from the introduction of John the Baptist to the parable of The Prodigal Son to the Last Supper. As with most other performances of this play, The Button Theatre crew dresses in eccentric clothing as they whirl and swirl around the stage in dance and song.
The members of the cast play themselves, except for Israel Hillery, who plays Jesus, and Charlie Bradshaw, who plays both John the Baptist and Judas. Hillery, despite his clownish clothing, played his role with just the amount of quiet dignity such a part required. In contrast, Bradshaw immediately introduced the audience to the ad-lib comedy that prevailed throughout the play.
Just as compelling as the acting was the singing, evident in the first minutes of the performance with Bradshaw's flawless tenor. Throughout the performance, the numbers sung by the entire cast were beautiful and rousing. Other very notable individual vocalists were the pure, true and confident Kristie Krabe, the sweet and surprisingly strong Chloe Zeitounian and the appropriately serene Hillery.
I would imagine this play is difficult to perform, because the actors have a certain leeway in the translation of the script, risking a level of chaos during the more enthusiastic parts. Matching the freeform chatter with the structure of the melodies had to be challenging, but The Button Theatre cast seemed perfectly in sync with each other, even when the audience wasn't sure what was about to happen.
"Godspell" is an enjoyable experience that is milder than "Jesus Christ, Superstar," with lessons of purity and decency throughout. Certainly more reverent than Monty Python's "The Life of Brian" (although I did whisper "Blessed are the cheesemakers" to my fellow audience member during the beatitudes), it is able to poke a little fun, keep a strong message and render some rocking tunes from Jesus and his followers.
During the famous "Day by Day," you'll feel like you're at a concert. After all, we do love a good rock star.
SideBar: IF YOU GO
What: "Godspell," the inaugural production of The Button Theatre
When: Through Aug. 5
Where: Hudgens Center for the Arts at Gwinnett Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway in Duluth
Cost: Tickets are $15.
Info: Call 770-831-0591 or visit www.buttontheatre.com.