15 Jun ASPEN TIMES: Review: ‘Godspell’ at Theatre Aspen
An exuberant young cast propels a peppy spin on the Gospels in Theatre Aspen’s production of “Godspell,” which opened Saturday at the Hurst Theatre.
Its game, seven-member cast hams it up and mugs for the audience more than a little, while showing off their formidable voices in tireless performances. They’re called on to do a ton of physical comedy and slapstick-y bits of pantomime as they act out Biblical parables in this truncated 12-song version of the classic 1971 rock musical. It runs just over an hour and is staged to be kid-friendly without grating on parents.
Ali Whitwell, a Syracuse University student and Theatre Aspen apprentice, gets the plum solo of the show, doing the hit “Day By Day” with her heart on her sleeve and her voice soaring as she descends the aisle to the stage. Her fellow apprentices in the cast each get their moments to shine, with Western Michigan University’s Savannah Fisher taking “Learn Your Lessons Well,” recent University of Oklahoma grad William Harris soloing on “We Beseech Thee,” and Pace University grad Christopher Isolano doing much of the dramatic heavy lifting as Judas and picking up several other roles.
Ryan Farnsworth, as Jesus, functions as a twinkly-eyed ringmaster and deftly handles the show’s abrupt shifts in tone from vaudeville bits and silly sections — and some beat-boxing — to earnest moral lessons and, yeah, the crucifixion. He commands attention throughout, whether strumming a guitar or ukulele or reciting the beatitudes, but his brightest moments are in his ballads that bookend the show, “Save the People” and “Beautiful City.”
Farnsworth is doing double duty with Theatre Aspen this summer, also playing Younger Brother in “Ragtime,” as is “Gospell” ensemble member Iris Beaumier. Anyone who has seen Beaumier as Sarah in “Ragtime” will be eager to hear more from her and, as expected, her big “Godspell” solo in “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul” is a soulful high point in the show.
This indefatigable cast, with direction and choreography by Theatre Aspen newcomer Sara Brians, whirl like dervishes throughout — spilling off the stage and into the crowd at every turn. Performing matinees in Theatre Aspen’s sometimes-steamy tent theater, they’re pouring sweat by the end of the first big ensemble number.
The production is peppered with audience interaction, sure to play well with young audiences. Its setting has been reimagined from the city to an Aspen-like high-alpine scene — brought to life in an inspired aspen-lined set by Paul Black — with Jesus and his ensemble as backpackers. The novel locale is brought home with an endearing pre-show section, where the members of the cast set up sleeping bags, do bird calls, gather firewood, share card tricks with the audience and chat up people as they find their seats. Ensemble member Danny Harris Kornfield — who proves himself a charismatic comic actor with a winning goofy streak — took campfire song requests from kids in the audience on the morning I attended and accepted challenges from the audience on how many marshmallows he could stuff in his mouth.
But worry not, “Godpsell” purists (are there “Godspell” purists?). Once the proper show gets started it doesn’t get too cute with the Rocky Mountain setting and doesn’t mess with any of the familiar songs and Biblical stories in the musical. The props are mostly mountain gear, like climbing ropes and hiking poles. Christ wears Tevas and uses a camping thermos to pour wine at the Last Supper here. But “Godspell” is still “Godspell” and, of course, the Gospels are still the Gospels.