Fall musical: ‘Godspell’
To rubberneck is to get a better view of an accident out of morbid curiosity as you pass it by. Last week in the Shapiro Campus Center Theater, you might say I was rubbernecking. From Nov. 15th-18th, the Undergraduate Theater Collective produced “Godspell,” directed by Nate Rtishchev ’21. The 1971 musical was written by John Michael Tebelak, with music by Stephen Schwartz. It is structured as a series of parables based on the Gospel of Matthew, with lyrics borrowed from traditional hymns.
Before I continue, I must mention that “Godspell” is not my favorite musical, to say the least. I listened to the soundtrack to check if the music actually sounded the way it did during the production — this somewhat alleviated my criticism of the UTC production, but it’s still on them for choosing to produce it.
The production tripped over its own feet with a five-minute introductory song by Schwartz. The performance was messy and sounded as if singers barely made their cues on time, but is apparently true to the original song. I was baffled to learn that this was professionally produced on Broadway. Once it ended, a girl a few seats down whispered to her friend, “What is this?” That quote encapsulates my attitude toward this entire musical.
But let’s begin with the good that came from this production. By far the best thing about it was the pit band. Live music was a smart touch that energized the room. This is to say, all of the performers in the band behind the curtain were great. You could make out some guitar, piano and drum work underneath the mediocre singing onstage. The band put an admirable effort into making the musical as good as it could be instrumentally.
The visuals during the production were dynamic. The lighting, while occasionally blinding, matched the costumes’ pastel color scheme. Lighting designer Jacob Bers ’20 did the important job of keeping me awake in the second act with fun patterns. The actors’ stomping on top of the tables onstage made for some interesting blocking during songs. There were, however, some intermittent points where students were just walking in circles.
Moving on to the performances, there were two diamonds in the rough. The best, by far, was Elizabeth Hillard ’22. Her solo in “Bless the Lord” was powerful. It’s too bad she was only featured once, but she has a great future in Brandeis’ Theater Arts department. The other diamond was BT Montrym ’19, whose performance demonstrated their excellent musical talent.
The best number of the show, “Beautiful City,” was charmingly sung by Maia Cataldo ’20. It nearly eclipses her forgettable performance as Jesus in the musical’s first act. “Beautiful City” is an easy song to mess up, but Cataldo managed to get out of it unscathed. The final good singer of the evening was David Giardin ’22. Guitar in hand, he was a delightful presence on stage and reminded me of Guy from “Once.”
The two acts vary wildly in quality. The first act is entertaining because of how much it confuses the audience. It was as though Rtishchev’s vision was lost somewhere, muddled within the musical’s poor writing. I had no idea what was going on throughout the first hour of this show. All I could make out was that Jesus was teaching his disciples about the aforementioned parables in a Brandeis classroom setting, which is not part of the original script. This did not work — putting Judas in fishnet stockings and black ripped jeans was a laughable decision. After a much-needed recovery during the intermission, the performance quality spiked while my interest plummeted. There seemed to be a trade-off between the ensemble’s singing and Tebelak’s writing. The last 45 minutes featured some of my favorite performances, but were drowned out by a deteriorating story. The plot grew thin and character development remained sparse.
The UTC’s production of “Godspell” was tainted by poor original material and an inconsistent execution of its few redemptive aspects. The script is the source of most of my problems with the production, but it is Rtishchev who needs to mitigate it with a clear-cut vision rather than enhance it. The good performances both on and off stage should be recognized, as they salvaged my opinion.