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Spellbound 

Godspell at Porthouse musically testifies to the gospel truth.

The 14 cast members keep the energy high.
  • The 14 cast members keep the energy high.
Stories from the New Testament have seeped into our culture and become a part of our consciousness. Who among us hasn't heard that it's better to turn the other cheek when attacked, or that "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God"? These little lessons, deceptively simple on the surface, are rife with moral implications and are devilishly hard to follow in real life (try that cheek-turning bit the next time someone pops you, physically or otherwise).

Back in 1971, John-Michael Tebelak put together the rock opera Godspell as a contemporary retelling of many parables from the Book of Matthew, infusing them with the energy and devotion that they no doubt engendered when they were first conceived. And in this Porthouse Theatre production, directed with relentless verve by Terri Kent, Jesus's teachings fairly leap off the stage. Of course, everyone views the Bible differently, and if you're expecting a musical rendition of the Son of God condemning homosexuals, you've slipped into the wrong revival meeting. In fact, the homilies presented in this show are bedrock principles of Christianity -- tolerance, sharing the wealth, peacemaking, and humility -- which are, curiously, so out of favor with the Bible-stroking administration in Washington, D.C. (Feel free to parse that conundrum on your own time.)

The essentially plotless structure of Godspell poses quite a challenge, since there is no storyline to build momentum and help develop characters. There are a few recognizable folks, of course -- Jesus, John the Baptist, and Judas -- but everyone else is called by the actor's first name or is in the chorus of disciples. As every scene begins anew with another parable, often accompanied by composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz's songs, it's up to the performers and director to forge a bond between the minisermons and the audience. Despite a paucity of great singing voices and the show's fairly bland quasi-pop tunes, this production succeeds by being entirely committed to entertaining the audience at all costs. There is virtually constant motion (and emotion) whirling onstage, as two lumber-framework towers and a couple of staircases spin into different positions, with the young 14-member cast jumping, hanging, and crawling over it in all directions.

By throwing together a collection of vaudeville gags, anachronistic references, improvisations, and a few DT-like trembling fits, director Kent simply refuses to let the interest wane -- even when you really don't want to hear yet another life lesson. While Kent doesn't slot the biblical folk into specific contemporary roles, as often happens with Godspell productions, she and choreographer MaryAnn Black focus their interpretation on frenetically precise movement and the creation of memorable vignettes. One knockout set piece is the story of the prodigal son, executed hilariously by the women, who straddle the recumbent men and use the men's legs as their own (sort of a twist on Tim Conway's foreshortened Dorf character). Sure, there are some excesses, such as artificial character breaks and some wince-inducing youthful overacting. But the final result is quite exhilarating.

Jesus, as played by W. James Koeth, comes off as a neighborly buddy rather than a powerful and charismatic leader, a muted characterization further dimmed by Koeth's rather slim vocal presence. Joshua C. Gordon gives Judas a lean, smoldering affect, and his soft-shoe routine with Jesus, "All for the Best," is cute. Lauren Champlin and Matt Lillo add strength in a variety of cameos. But the most riveting performer and best singer is Sandra Emerick, who plays the vamp like a cross between Don Quixote's whore-goddess Aldonza and Samantha from Sex and the City. Some admirers in the audience may still be trying to wipe the steam off their eyeglasses from her sultry "Turn Back, O Man." The one big hit song from this show, "Day by Day," is given only a workmanlike rendition by Colleen Longshaw -- she seems more preoccupied with hitting the notes than acting the lyrics -- and Andrew Cruse does a hatchet job on "We Beseech Thee."

This energetic production ends more with a whimper than a bang, as the crucifixion scene lacks the passion and imagination that the rest of the show demonstrates in spades. There also isn't as much eye candy as one might expect, with Steve Pauna's virtually colorless set and Anne Medlock's thrift-store-grab-bag wardrobe.

Even though Godspell is a bit long in the tooth and its religio-romantic vision is a tough sell in today's cynical world, it's good to be reminded about basic behavior guideposts that, if only we followed them, would help us all live more happily together. Meanwhile, Halliburton engineers are probably busy designing a four-mile-long needle, with an eye large enough for any camel to casually amble through.

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