Launching Young Triple Threats’ Careers

Forty years ago an iconic cast performed the legendary production of Godspell in Toronto. A group of young unknowns took to the stage, and the show ran for about year. When it closed, there was a crop of new stars who went on to Second City and Saturday Night Live. That production of Godspell launched the careers of Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Jayne Eastwood, Dave Thomas, and musical director Paul Shaffer.

Flash forward to Godspell in Petrolia, 40 years later. A very youthful, talented cast takes to the stage – all with amazing voices. I suspect that many careers will be launched with this production of Godspell.

The energy and ability to engage the audience of this young group is amazing. They are true triple threats – singers/dancers/actors. This lively production is arguably the best show I have seen on the stage at Victoria Playhouse in the past nine seasons that I have reviewed.

Godspell is the Gospel according to Matthew. It provides a refreshing study of the Bible. We learn so much about Jesus’ teachings, while the cast illustrates the parables. Jesus is played by a captivating Jake Stern, a Stratford high school student. He relates the teachings in such an engaging way that it seems like a new interpretation. His nine followers act out the stories and parables, bringing each little lesson to life.

But there are marked differences from the 40 year old version: Today Godspell folks are texting on cell phones, and dressed for the new millennium. Still, there is the iconic horn blowing, and the rousing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” gets everyone’s attention.

Water flows from heaven, or at least the ceiling of the theatre, as Graham Parkhurst as John the Baptist, uses a big green sponge for baptisms. Their rendition of “God Save the People” is moving. Rebecca McCauley’s Day by Day is beautifully sung, while the chemistry between Stern and Rebecca is evident.

Elements from the new millennium continue throughout the show: Michael DeRose does a rap number with Lisa Michelle and Alessia Lupiano. They throw in some audience participation, so if you are sitting in an aisle seat, be prepared to take part in Pictionary or charades. The have modernized the biblical judge, who passes judgement on Lindsay Lohan. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a sock-puppet show, and then they are reading the Good Book on iPads because we are told “Steve Jobs is in heaven now”.

Stacey Bulmer brings comedy to the production with her Donald Trump impersonation. She tells Lazarus “You’re fired” and later asks to “see your birth certificate”. Her brilliant comedic skills are demonstrated in the story of the prodigal son, when the father calls for the killing of the fatted calf – Stacey goes down with a moo every time. She also belts out songs with a rich and powerful voice, and is certainly an audience favourite.

The talent is all-encompassing: Alexis Gordon sings “Learn your Lessons Well”, accompanying herself on the ukulele. Jesus (Jake) and Graham perform an old soft shoe dance, and then the company joins in with magic canes in “All for the Best”. Ivan Lo sings the beautiful old hymn “All Good Gifts”, which opens with “We Plow the Fields and Scatter”. He has a beautiful soaring tenor voice. Michael Hogeveen sings a lively “We Beseech Thee”, the song that Martin Short still sings on occasion.

There are lessons straight from St. Matthew, presented in a thoughtful, entertaining way: lessons on hypocrisy (how can you see a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye, when you have a plank in your own eye) about serving money before God, worshipping fake messiahs, and being humble when performing acts of charity.

Then comes the shock of Judas’ betrayal and Jesus makes his round of tearful, emotional good-byes. The show closes with a loud rock finale, and the cast sings “Long Live God”, before reprising “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and “Day by Day”.

Credit goes to musical director Mark Payne and his band for the wonderful music. They even join in the singing occasionally.

I can’t say enough about the singing talent of this young cast. All 10 are blessed with amazing voices, and fortunately, have the acting and dancing skills to support their singing. Congratulations to director David Hogan for bringing out the best in this group of young people.

But the evening wasn’t quite perfect — I have a few complaints:

1. Get rid of the fog machine. It is just annoying to look through haze. I was once told that fog machines were created to give theatres the feel of a smoky bar, and patrons would relate the smoke to having fun. Well, bars aren’t smoky anymore, and it just causes a lot of blinking, especially for those of us wearing contact lenses. Folks I talked to after the show complained of eye and throat irritation – it was just too much.

2. Fix the mics – nothing is worse than crackling and snapping microphones – except when the mics cut out altogether.

3. It was a hot muggy night – turn on the air conditioning. Maybe the dampness from all the sweaty actors caused the problems with the microphones.

4. VPP has a dip in the floor of the house at about rows C through E. Patrons are looking up at the stage from a point lower than rows A and B. Often the actors sit in a circle around the stage with someone speaking in the centre. Those sitting at the front of the stage blocked the audience’s view of the others.

Yes, I’m being picky, but it was otherwise such an enjoyable evening.  Despite these issues, this is still an amazing production, not to be missed. Call for tickets now, I am sure this show will sell out. It’s an uplifting evening and you’ll leave the theatre singing.

Godspell continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until June 24. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or 519-882-1221 for tickets or visit www.thevpp.ca

Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Conceived and originally directed by John Michael Tebelak
Directed by David Hogan
Choreographed by Adele MacKenzie
Musical direction by Mark Payne
Performed by Jake Stern, Graham Parkhurst, Stacey Bulmer, Michael DeRose, Alexis Gordon, Michael Hogeveen, Ivan Lo, Alessia Lupiano, Rebecca McCauley, and Lisa Michelle.
Victoria Playhouse, Petrolia
June 5 to 24, 2012
Reviewed by Mary Alderson


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