Review: ‘Godspell’ at Manoa Valley Theatre
REVIEW BY GREGG S. GEARY / Special to the Star-Advertiser
After 40 years, the 1971 off-Broadway hit “Godspell” by composer Stephen Schwartz and playwright John-Michael Tebelak is still going strong. Many aspiring high school theater troupes have cut their teeth on this perennial favorite with its catchy pop tunes and sparse staging.
Presented by Manoa Valley Theatre
» Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Rd.
The show is a pastiche of retellings of the parables from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Granted the timelessness of the literary material, one wonders if the musical and theatrical aspects of the show hold up as well, but Manoa Valley Theatre’s new production of “Godspell” (with “2012” tacked on to the title) proves once again that it does.
This version, directed by Bree Bumatai, opens slowly with a stagehand wearing a hoodie, moving about the stage for what seems like five minutes, getting ready for a rehearsal. What this means is unclear and seems to add little to the show other than provide a forum for reading off the corporate sponsors.
This is followed by the first number, “Tower of Babble,” which presents the ideas of philosophers as diverse as Gibbon, Galileo and L. Ron Hubbard, all vying to be heard at once. The company handles the a cappella counterpoint admirably and its cacophony is interrupted by John the Baptist (Miguel Pa‘ekukui) intoning “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord).” The company then leaves their roles as independent philosophers to become an ensemble brought together by John baptizing and transforming each one.
At this point Jesus, ably played by Elitei Tatafu Jr., enters and becomes the real unifying element for the company. He begins to relate parables that engage them in a variety of songs, pantomimes, magic acts, games (Pictionary and charades with some audience participation), and choreography. The musical numbers cover a range of styles including pop-rock, rap, ballad and vaudeville. The presentation of each is imaginative, nicely choreographed and well paced.
Many numbers provide a vehicle to showcase the fine singing and acting abilities of members of the company. “Day by Day” features sweet-voiced Kimee Balmilero, who does justice to the song that went to No. 13 on the Billboard charts in 1973. Alison Aldcroft belts out an energetic “Learn your Lessons Well,” and her daughter, Alex Lanning, not to be outdone by mom, is spot on in her interpretation of “Bless the Lord.”
The ballad “By My Side” is convincingly rendered by Callie Doan, while Kim Anderson bumps and grinds through a seductive version of “Turn Back O Man” (oh, if we only could, Kim). Miguel Cadoy III displays his lyrical tenor gifts in “All Good Gifts” and Mike Dupre kicks it in a rockin’ rendition of “Light of the World.” The lanky KoDee Martin is notable for adding his well-timed comedic flair throughout the production.
The talented band led by Keith Griffin provides the right touch and never overshadows the singers.
Tatafu is a local talent who makes his mark in this production. His portrayal of Jesus provides a blend of fresh innocence and depth that keeps the show from becoming a kitschy mix of Sunday school and “Glee.” His upbeat retelling of the parables seems built upon an understanding of the truth they contain so that the audience is compelled to believe there is more here than an evening’s light entertainment. He convinces us of the enduring message behind the fun.
This makes the drama of the crucifixion in the final 20 minutes believable. I actually heard sobs in the audience, and to make theater goers laugh in Act I and cry in Act II is no small feat. So to borrow a lyric from another show, “Sing Hallelujah, come on get happy” at MVT’s refreshingly delightful production of “Godspell 2012.”
Gregg S. Geary is a musicologist and music librarian at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.