NEENAH, Wis. (WFRV) – “Godspell” is one of the musicals that creative folks love to mold around an idea that comes to them.
In this area, productions have included the Biblical disciples as New York City firemen in the wake of 9/11, as an enclave of visual artists, as circus/harlequin entertainers and as the historical figures of the original 1971 version with the focus on the words of parables based mostly on the Gospel of Matthew.
Another version is running to Aug. 1 as the 2021 offering of Riverside Players community theater. The backdrop mural drops hints of where the production is going. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for…” is stated above such images as these – five raised fists of different colors, rainbow-like colors beneath the fists and the word “revolution” in black capital letters except for four that are backwards and in white spelling E-V-O-L, which is “love” frontwards.
At its core, the show is a series of lessons from the Bible set to stories and songs. It is Jesus’ take on life and his advice on how to live it so souls can achieve the kingdom of heaven.
“Godspell” is a concept show from the get-go. This production co-directed by Amanda A. Petersen and J. Alan is of a freeform style, as if sourcing improvisational theater with its multiple, spray inputs. Social media, Tiktok and graffiti are verbal and visual vernacular. One scene has characters playing charades with the audience. Baptisms are by spray water bottle. After the first scene with all-black clothing, clothing is contemporary and often of bright splashes and/or such T-shirt phraseology as “No More Hate.” The players are not identified in the printed program by the character(s) they play. Katana Talen Goss portrays the presence of Jesus and takes on the personality of knowing, of sympathy, of specialness.
In the Riverside Players’ take, some of the meanings of the original words are at times nudged aside for a catchy phrase referencing today.
The show abounds in abundant energy, whether in dance sequences or ensemble vigor. The experienced cast features lustrous singers, though a cranked-up soundtrack covers the featured singer’s voice at times. Enthusiasm is high, enunciation less so.
The cast is committed to the basic idea of this production. The players leap into roles and numbers, turning up the heat in such songs as “Bless the Lord,” “Turn Back O Man,” “Save the People” and “We Beseech Thee.” In telling the parables, play-acting usually is exaggerated for a comical effect.
The emphasis is the now. Being that today is different than even two years ago, this “Godspell” takes on shifting perspectives by way of the elastic world of musical theater.
Friday night’s performance was met by enthusiastic response from the audience at the end.
Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Schwartz; book – John-Michael Tebelak; directors – Amanda A. Petersen, J. Alan; music director – Brittney Baldwin; choreographer – Kyle S. Bauer; technical director – John Dalziel; stage manager – Jensen MacKenzie; costumers – Krista Frenz, Larissa Petersen; sound engineer – Adrienne; mural design and scenic charge – Kaitlin Younger
Cast (in order of appearance):
Kyle S. Brauer
Amanda A. Petersen
Katana Talen Goss
Songs (mostly recorded soundtrack)
Prologue/“Tower of Babble” – Company
“Prepare Ye” – Judas, Company
“Save the People” – Jesus, Company
“Day by Day” – Kate, Company
“Learn Your Lessons Well” – Kadie, Company
“O Bless the Lord” – Amanda, Company
“All for the Best” – Jesus, Judas, Company
“All Good Gifts” – Matt, Company
“Light of the World” – Ericka, Company
“Turn Back, O Man” – Kyle, Company
“Alas for You” – Jesus
“By My Side” – Chelsey, Company
“We Beseech Thee” – Larissa, Company
“Beautiful City” – Jesus
“On the Willows” – Judas
“Finale” – Jesus, Company
Running time: Two hours, 17 minutes
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. July 24; 7 p.m. July 25; 8 p.m. July 28-31; 7 p.m. Aug. 1
THE VENUE: Riverside pavilion in Riverside Park in Neenah is an open shelter used for summer shows of Riverside Players Theatre in the Park, which started in 1955. Seating for 244 or so (depending on arrangement) is set up around three sides of a rectangular stage. For “Godspell,” seating is limited and socially distanced for COVID-19 pandemic considerations. The building is stone exterior, with the inside including a wooden ceiling with large wooden support beams and a cement floor. The performance space is what amounts to a thrust stage – “thrusting” out into the audience. This style of stage is famous in some locations – Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Stratford Festival in Canada. It’s interesting that the Riverside Players stage came to be in the 1950s just as thrust stages in other places were getting attention as pioneering. The pavilion’s location is picturesque. The park, on the Fox River near Lake Winnebago, is rimmed on two sides by grand historical homes, one of which was converted into Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass. For settings, Riverside Players has a spot that catches the eye like few others.