I first listened to the cast album of Godspell as a teenager but had never seen the show.  I was finally able to share its catchy music with my 14 year-old daughter and her 13 year-old best friend at the Mainstage of Olney Theatre Center this past weekend.

Godspell was originally created by John-Michael Tebelak to make the Gospels (mostly according to St. Matthew) more accessible and joyful.  Stephen The cast of GODSPELL at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo: Stan Barouh)Schwartz of Pippin and Wicked fame, wrote the music and the non-biblical lyrics to Godspell.  Young audiences will be familiar with his lyrics from Disney movies such as Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Enchanted.

The musical begins slowly as actors carrying suitcases one by one convene across a stark set – a highway with a scaffold bearing a billboard “Lost?”  Things liven up when John the Baptist (Rachel Zampelli), who also plays Judas, makes a grand entrance in a red pickup truck.  In a stirring number, she throws down the cloth banner to reveal the accomplished band.  Soon after, Jesus (Jordan Coughtry) arrives.   Jesus conveys his messages of love, kindness, humility and generosity through parables. The first act has a pastiche of both Family Feud and the Dating Game.  Topical references to Frozen, Rocky, and other pop culture abound.  The second act has still more parables but has more plot and less humor.  Judas betrays Jesus and Jesus is crucified.

Except for Jesus and John/Judas, the rest of the ensemble play Christ’s followers, and go by the actor’s own first names.  Each cast member gets a solo.  The cast worked well together as an ensemble, but I would have liked to see them amp up the star turns a bit.  Nova Y. Payton, as usual, gave a stand out performance.  The girls especially liked the high energy Rachel Zampelli and the more wistful Emily Zickler.  Jordan Coughtry as Jesus was a fine singer and portrayed Christ’s gentleness but not necessarily his charisma.

Nova Y. Payton and the cast of GODSPELL at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo: Stan Barouh)The show has a number of memorable songs ranging in style from rock to folk.  The best known are probably the catchy “Prepare Ye” and “Day by Day,” and the touching “Beautiful City.”

Costume designer Ivania Stack did a great job in creating hippie-style costumes that magically transform from drab to colorful. There are also a couple of other well-done special effects including Christ’s disappearance in Act Two.  Yet Godspell is not nearly as entertaining or magical as Pippin, nor will it have the appeal of Wicked with its themes of rivalry and belonging (like Frozen) to preteen and teenage children.

If you are in the front row especially, you are fair game to be invited to participate in the Family Feud or dance with Nova Y. Payton.  During the intermission, the actors carry baskets of paper decorations and invite the audience to decorate the theater.  The girls really enjoyed this part of the show and enjoyed interacting with the friendly performers.

The show is recommended for ages 7 and up and we agree.  There is strobe lighting, talk of “prostitutes,” sounds of sirens, and the depiction of Christ’s death.   Jesus is kissed and then stabbed by Judas, and crucified on a barbed wire fence. Jesus mentions the blood on his hands but none is visible to the audience.

Godspell’s director Jason King Jones does an able job keeping a show with little action or plot moving. The show as written has a sort of casual “Let’s put on a show” quality and I think it might work better either in the round with even more audience participation or as a concert showcasing the stirring music.

Having been raised Jewish, my daughter and I found the show an excellent crash course to the New Testament, chock-full of stories and famous quotes.  My daughter’s friend, baptized Christian but now an atheist, found Godspell “way less boring than reading the Bible” and enjoyed the show.  Godspell initiated a lively discussion of religion on the ride home. I think our reactions would have made creator Tebelak very happy.  Although the show has a Christian theme, its message of community will appeal to all faiths.

Go see the show if the spirit moves you.

Additional Information

  • The first act of Godspell is 1 hour and 5 minutes, the second act 45 minutes and there is a 15 minute intermission.
  • Godspell runs through March 1 and performances are held Wednesdays to Sundays.  Tickets range in price from $38 to $75.
  • Concessions:  Drinks, chips and ice cream are available for purchase.
  • Restrooms are available and there are two water fountains outside.  There are no changing tables in the restrooms.
  • Parking is free and ample.

Photo Credits:

  • Photo 1: The cast of GODSPELL at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo: Stan Barouh)
  • Photo 2: Nova Y. Payton and the cast of GODSPELL at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo: Stan Barouh)
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