Godspell (Studio East)

Posted on August 14, 2012


Keenan Barr (Judas/Saxophone) and Jordan Williams’ (Jesus)
Photo Couresy of Studio East Production.

On Friday, August 10th Studio East followed up its smash summer musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with an opening night sellout of “Godspell” over at the Studio East Mainstage Theater in Kirkland. Boasting a cast of over twenty children and teens, Studio East joyfully takes on one of Stephen Schwartz and Broadways’ most successfully but challenging musicals and succeeds in conveying the heart of the show to an engaged and delighted audience. Clearly Studio East does not shy away from controversial, sensitive or demanding productions.

Before attending the performance, I was familiar with Victor Garber’s performance in “Godspell” the movie but was unsure of what to expect from a live production performed by a cast with an average age of twelve. Studio East surprised me right out of the gate, by the provocative decision to cast a young lady (Jordan Williams) in the role of Jesus. Did I mention that they were not afraid to be controversial? I wisely determined to withhold judgment and give the performance a chance, as by the time the curtain closed, I found myself curiously moved by the production. I will speak to this later in the review.

If you are unfamiliar with the musical, “Godspell” the storyline is drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, but conveys the story using various theatrical methods, including charades, clowning, acrobatics and music to convey the life and message of Jesus. “Godspell” is not merely a retelling of the Gospel of Matthew; it is a visceral experience which seeks to create the sense of fun, love and community of the disciples of Jesus on stage. It does not stop there; it reaches out, subtly drawing the audience into the shared experience of the performers on stage. In our cynical, self-centered and isolated society today, that is a monumental task to take on.

When the stage began to fill up with all those young people (some only ten years of age), I found myself experiencing a moment of nostalgia remembering my first time on stage and questioned whether these young people were really ready to tackle the challenges of “Godspell”. I scanned their faces, wondering what must be going through their minds. While there were several who initially looked awkward, experiencing the normal opening night jitters, I was impressed by the professionalism and seriousness to which they took their craft. The production started out a bit tentative but continued to gained steam and confidence as it progressed.

Godspell (Ensemble)
Photo Couresy of Studio East Production

Godspell” is not an easy production and poses several challenges for performers, which are no doubt compounded by having a large and youthful cast. One such challenge is that they are all onstage for the entire show; there is no down time for them. One of the most demanding of acting tests is how the performers carry themselves when they have no lines to speak. Given the large number of actors on stage in this production, there are many opportunities within the production for each performer to face this challenge. In this regard, they did a remarkable job keeping in character, always ‘being on’ and engaged with their fellow performers.

While there were some technical difficulties, this is almost to be expected on opening night. There were times when I was not able to hear an actor speaking their lines due to either the background noises of the cast drowning them out or the individual performer not cheating out a bit to the audience and projecting their voice when saying their lines. These are all easily excusable, if the performers are able to convey the heart of the production to the audience and this regard, they succeeded tremendously well.

As I watched the production unfold on stage, I realized I had forgotten what a tremendous message “Godspell” had. The cast kept the energy up, effectively playing off of one another and at times appropriately hamming it up to the enjoyment of the audience. There were too many memorable moments to list them all, but I will call out several of them.

Jordan Williams’ (Jesus) solid performance, strong stage presence and vocal range eliminated any initial objections the audience may have had regarding casting a young lady as Jesus and personally, she won me over. Her presence, cheerful demeanor and magnetism was crucial to pulling the cast together as a unit, a family and accomplishing the primary task of conveying and drawing the audience into experiencing the love, laughs and joy of the performers on stage. If the audience does not buy into that, then the performance will unravel quickly. William’s vitality and connection with the rest of the cast helped ensured that would not happen.

Williams was aided by strong performances from Jonica Beatie (Jonica/Saxophone/flute), Keenan Barr (Judas/Saxophone) and Matthew Tolentino (John/Guitar). If the disciples were a family, then these were the oldest siblings. If they were a baseball team, they would be the MVPs. Any potential threat that the production may have lapsed into a lull, was quickly countered by these folks and their fresh injection of contagious, high-energy and enthusiasm. Well done. I especially appreciated the moving saxophone duet (Beatie and Barr) and Tolentino’s guitar and passionate tambourine work.

Godspell Cast Photo
Photo Couresy of Studio East Production

Regrettably, I am not able to connect the characters in the play with the performers by name, as there were no pictures in the program. The girls who sang “Day by Day” and “Turn Back O Man” were very good. The girl who sang “Bless the Lord, My Soul” had an amazing voice. “It’s all for the Best” was well played and very enjoyable. “All Good Gifts” was moving. The boy (let’s have some wine) and the cast singing “Light of the World” was an audience favorable. I would be remiss in not pointing out the young man, who played the ventriloquist’s doll with the huge grin and never failed to draw laughter from the audience and the talented young lady wearing the pink headscarf who clearly has the gift and a passion for acting beyond her years.

The quality and success of “Godspell” transcends individual performances and hinges on upon the chemistry of the entire cast. In this regard, the director (Laura Shepherd) succeeded in putting together the ensemble that came together. They projected an infectious joy, playing together on stage, laughing, singing and learning together. They showed me glimpses of how the world could be. It made me envious. I wanted to join their world. In life, we easily forget what is most important. Shows like this, awaken us from our slumber of cynicism, distrust and defensiveness and fuel the starved spark within us, which desires to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

In a world of iPods, iPads, iPhones and the focus on the solitary individual experience, it can be overwhelming and hard to resist but the cast of Studio East’s “Godspell” reminds us that life is about more than just satisfying our own desires. Life is a journey that’s only truly enjoyed fully when it’s shared with others. While we can get caught up with the pursuit of material possessions and the things of this world, the path to truth, peace and deep soul satisfaction is the one paved in love, mercy, forgiveness and paid for in blood. Now that’s a lesson that more people need to hear about. Bravo, Studio East!

For more information about Studio East, future productions and classes, check out: http://studio-east.org.