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Sunday, February 22, 2015

'Godspell,' another big Olney hit

The cast of Godspell, now on stage at the Olney Theatre Center/Photo by Stan Barouh
It's witty, provoking, packed with action and contemporary culture, and you don't even have to be Christian. 

Or religious. 

All that's required is that you "be."

Who can't benefit from a lively musical which reminds us all to be kind to one another, to treat others as you like to be treated, to withhold those rocks, we are all sinners, all Jesus' teachings in song and dance?

It's Godspell now on stage at the Olney Theatre Center where it's possible to have a good time with the Bible.


Is anyone surprised that the run has been extended through March 8?  (This just in: And extended again! Thru March 15.)


Godspell first opened on Broadway in May 1971, following Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, all three sharing some of the same characteristics.

At the Olney, the acting, set, costuming, and music all come together notably, but it's the script which stars.
Nova Y. Payton and the cast of Godspell, now on stage at the Olney Theatre Center/Photo by Stan Barouh

A slow start of a few short minutes and Nova Y. Payton's striking voice opens entrances for the ensemble whose members gradually drift onto stage while speaking in different tongues a la the Tower of Babel. From there the production launches, and there's no holding back, as Jesus' life and teachings soon take center stage with Jordan Coughtry as "the man" with his ageless messages.

Ivania Stack dresses him from head to toe in neutral beige, a great contrast with the pop apparel of the other performers in colorful 60s hippies garb. ("Beige" as a standout color? With lights and Stack's design, it works.) 

That there are only ten members of the healthy ensemble is surprising, for visually and audibly, the effect seems to be many more.

The singing is best in groups or duets, but the voices of Payton and Rachel Zampelli (who plays both Judas and John) are the finest.
The cast of Godspell, now on stage at the Olney Theatre Center/Photo by Stan Barouh

Except for casual variations, Paige Hathaway's set doesn't change much from its opening scene, but it's not necessary since the action is so fast-paced and leaves little time to study what's on stage anyway.  (The side of a deserted western highway, complete with electrical poles (good for climbing and singing), old tires (good for making walls), and a red truck which ambles out and becomes useful in many scenes.)

Will Pickens does a nice job with sound design with unseen rumbling trucks and vehicles speeding by on the highway to get things rolling, and an invisible helicopter with murmuring blades, whose purpose I am still uncertain, unless it was law enforcement on the prowl. 

Audience participation is always fun, and the older vested man in the front row (surely a mathematician) who was pulled up to join the cast, handled his new role with flair, without hesitation or doubt, moving in time with the music and his partner up close and personal, to the delight of the audience.

It was great to see members of the electric orchestra, usually hidden in the pit.  Under the superb direction of Christopher Youstra, the musicians remained on stage for the entire performance, elevated to an unobtrusive platform on high which served as a perch for the actors in various scenes.  The orchestra's costuming (Hawaiian shirts, hats) was right in keeping with the actors'.  

"Who am I?" and "Where am I going?"  At the Olney, Jesus can show you the way.

Helen Hayes nominations are in order:

Lighting: Sonya Dowhaluk

Choreography:  Bryan Knowlton

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical: Jordan Coughtry

Outstanding Director of a Musical: Jason King Jones

Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical

Other ensemble actors:  Kurt Boehm, Maggie Donnelly, Michael J. Mainwaring, Calvin McCullough, Christopher Mueller, Allie Parris, and Emily Zickler. 

Other key crew members: Trevor A. Riley and Dennis A. Blackledge 

Orchestra and additional vocalists:  Danny Espy, Kim Spath, Rob Mueller, Yussef Chisholm, and Alex Aucain

What: Godspell conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (from Wicked, Pippin, and Enchanted) and based on the Gospel according to Matthew. 

When: Now through March 15, 2015 with evening shows at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. weekend matinees.

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832

How much: Tickets start at $38, with discounts for military, groups, seniors, and students.  Recommended for ages 7 and up.

Duration:  2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

Refreshments: Available for purchase and may be taken to seats.

Parking: Abundant, free, and on-site

For more information: 301-924-3400

For more reviews of Godspell and other plays on stage in the Washington, D.C. area, go to 
DC Metro Theater Arts.

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