Jesus unplugged


Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Kenneth Garson
Musical direction by Chris Blissett
Choreography by Jennifer Hamburg
Blunt Theater Company
La Plaza Cultural Community Garden
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen

It’s generally not a good sign to leave a musical humming the scenery. However, when the audience enters the theatre through a willow tree, and when the set consists of a vine-covered walkway and decorative stone steps in an idyllic garden, then it’s no slur on the production to cite the setting as a major factor in the success of this free evening of theatre.

In Schwartz’s classic rock musical Godspell, 11 actors retell stories from the Bible, with one playing the role of a contemporary Jesus and the others assuming different roles to enact the parables and teachings to each other through dialog and song. Kenneth Garson’s pared-down version was given a local spin through contemporary references (e.g. to 9/11) and through Cheryl McCarron’s boldly costumed local types -- only in the East Village could a drag queen (the leggy Tony Foggia) and his dungaree-clad girlfriend (Sandi Micali Smith) raise doubts, pre-show, whether they were part of the audience. Jesus (Michael Givens) had the minimalist chic of a Gap commercial, and the disciples included NYC cops (Kenneth Garson and Sheila Morgan), a simple-minded homeless man (a moving David Rappaport), a streetwise prostitute (Sky Spiegel), a shy but eager Jewish boy (Jonathan Toth), a vibrant, enthusiastic young woman (Pamela D. Roberts), an earnest Indian taxi-driver (a well-judged comic performance by Rizwan Mirza), and a female yuppie (Maggie Graham). With the East Village apartment blocks encircling the garden, this characterization -- and the use of the actors’ own first names -- emphasized the campfire informality of the show.

The orchestration was a revelation. Pared down to three musicians (Mary E. Rodriguez on drums, musical director Chris Blissett on electric guitar, and Danny Pinto on acoustic guitar), the songs merged with the dialog, allowing human voices to carry both and sidestepping the dehumanizing effects of amplification.

Godspell is an ensemble piece, and while some of the staging and delivery was a little cliched, the actors created small but telling moments. Most touching was the developing relationship between the no-nonsense Sandi and the "crazy man" who watched her flute playing and Jesus’s magic tricks with the unforced wonder of a small child. Each performer had a solo or duet; some performers were more actors than singers, but everybody had a voice, and there were powerful vocal performances from Pamela D. Roberts and Maggie Graham. Jennifer Hamburg’s choreography, while overall rather cliched (lots of outstretched waving arms), was performed with conviction, and it was hard not to be charmed by the likeable and upbeat ensemble.

The linchpin of the evening, however, was Givens as a hip black Jesus. Blessed with a strong voice, graceful physicality and impressive stage presence, Givens brought to the role a strong sense of purpose tempered with a great sense of humor and compassion. A generous member of the ensemble, he rose to the challenge of his own role with ease and confidence, carrying the weight of the show with a combination of disarming youthful enthusiasm and the panache of a seasoned professional.

Winning performances, a stunning setting, and the friendly neighborhood atmosphere combined to make this a memorable and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Choreography: 1
Performing: 1
Sets: N/A
Costumes: 2
Lighting/sound: N/A

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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen