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Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Gusty Version of Godspell

What is it about the daring of youth? Maybe you have to be young to have the guts to write a musical about the Bible. And when you’re young you’re also brave enough to pull it off. “Godspell,” playing this week at the Locke Township Meeting

House at Amish Acres, started out decades ago as a student project, and this youthful production, featuring students from local high schools or the newly graduated from area colleges, is a gusty version which we’ll only get to enjoy for a very few performances this week.

Audiences who loved Joelle Rassi who played the title role in last season’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” may not immediately recognize her as Morgan, dressed in black and singing the character’s signature song “Turn Back, O Man,” but they will certainly also love this performance.

Sara Bowling does a fine job with “Day by Day,” with its beautiful setting for an ancient prayer,. “Bless the Lord,” with its brassy retelling of Psalm 103, was ably sung by Aria Skaggs. Those only familiar with the film version of “Godspell” will not have heard “Learn Your Lessons Well,” which makes Kellie MacGowan’s singing all the more memorable.

I liked Ricky Iniesta’s verison of “You are the Light of the World,” along with his moments retelling the parables. Christain Elias is more than up to the demands of “We Beseech Thee.”

Michelle Miller, who share a haunting rendition of one of the most achingly beautiful songs, “By My Side,” performs a brash characterization of a certain memorable combover in one of the parables, something added by this particular cast.

But then each company reinvents “Godspell” on its own terms. In 1996 the Round Barn Theatre chose a Hoosier theme, complete with a barn and shocks of corn, which made for a very rustic production Director Jeremy Littlejohn has chosen to go with something of a “Breakfast Club” theme, working with the cast to create a company of high school students representing familiar types that walk the halls of our local schools. Goth, geek, athlete, cheerleader, studious, are among the types presented.

My favorite song may be “All Good Gifts,” and I was not disappointed by the rich rendition by Bradley M. Waelbroeck.

But the individuals selected to play the two main roles, T.J. Bresler as John the Baptist/Judas, and Music Director Travis Smith as Jesus, are the experienced performers required to hold the show together. Their duet, “All for the Best,” allows for their distinct vocal styles to be woven together. Though the cast as a whole is strong, these two stand out, as they ought to, Bresler in “Prepare Ye,” and “On the Willows,” and Smith in “Save the People,” “Alas For You,” and “Beautiful City.”

Smith, especially, brings to life what C.S. Lewis once wrote, that Jesus says the most comforting and challenging words in the Bible. These words, all too familiar, are spoken well, and as if said for the first time.

And that’s why this script can be impossible. What do you do with words taken directly from the gospels that people are too familiar with? But this company consistently reboots the Bible, and in the process refreshes the audience with the audacity of scripture, while challenging all of us to, as the cast does in the finale, take the life of Jesus into the world.

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