Hippo Manchester
September 15, 2005

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Ensemble elevates Palace’s Godspell

Spine-tingling harmonies and Judas’ soft shoe impress the Hippo reviewer

By Michelle Saturley 

I must preface this review by saying that I’ve seen about a dozen different versions of Godspell over the years, and performed in two of them. I am an unabashed fan of this musical. A musical and largely comedic retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew, it was the very first play I ever saw as a child, and I sobbed hysterically at the end. It got to the point that my mother asked the players if she could bring me backstage to prove to me that the actor who played Jesus wasn’t really dead.

One of my favorite things about the show is that it is largely an ensemble vehicle and depends so much on the improvisational talents of its cast. Therefore, the show is never the same. Each cast creates a different chemistry, uses different ideas and approaches to the text, and often puts a modern spin on the script. It has become a musical theater student’s rite of passage.

The Palace Professional Production of Godspell, which opened Sept. 9, does tend to stick to the more traditional interpretation of the show. There are moments of original zaniness and clever improv that garnered some big laughs from the audience, but much of the performance is well-covered territory. However, the energy and chemistry of the apostles makes this production worth watching.

The set design by Carl Rajotte and Gary Goodrich is the very first thing to grab the eye as the curtain opens. The audience gave an audible “ahhh” to the wide, white staircase that takes up a good amount of the stage and resembles a Greek or Roman amphitheater. The stairs are topped by what appears to be a stained-glass logo embellished with a “G,” (for God or Godspell, one assumes) in a style similar to the “S” of the Superman logo — an homage, presumably, to the original Broadway staging of the show in which Jesus wears a Superman T-shirt. There is little else in the way of a set, which is a good thing, because the players are called upon to act out a series of Bible parables using mime, sound effects and minimal props.

Director/choreographer Rajotte, who is also the Palace’s resident director, has done a fine job showcasing the ensemble’s singing and dancing talents. Their harmonies on “Day by Day” and “By My Side” were spine-tingling.

The choreography ranges from simple group numbers to more elaborate solos, and the actors selected to perform the more challenging dances were spot-on. For example, Chris Suchan, who plays Judas, moved well during “All for the Best,” performing a vaudevillian-inspired soft shoe routine. And local actress Jessica Scalese, last seen as Patty Simcox in New Thalian Players’ Grease, gets to shine both as a dancer and as a vocalist throughout the show.

Lucas Coatney, with his high energy and quick witted- improv skills, very nearly stole the show. He’s also a gifted singer:  his vocals on “All Good Gifts” induced some tears from this reviewer, and he blended well vocally with Wally Calderon on “On the Willows.” Also notable was Raashan James II, who ramped up the energy at the end of the first act with “Light of the World.”

Now for the star of the show: Jesus, as portrayed by NYC-based actor David Perlman. He exudes a warmness that is crucial for Jesus, who in this show is more of a Mr. Rogers-type character, gently leading his apostles to the message of love, tolerance and understanding. However, the second act is significantly darker, and Perlman struggled with the some of the rock-style vocals and the more emotional demands of the role. The crucifixion scene was rather tame, and while I didn’t expect Passion of the Christ-style theatrics, a little more emotion from Perlman would have made the scene more effective. Still, his natural likeability and sweet singing voice, along with his chemistry with the ensemble, made the show work.

Godspell at The Palace Theatre runs one more weekend, Sept. 16 and 17. For tickets and showtimes, call the box office at 668-5588, or visit www.palacetheatre.org.