Getting the scoop on “Godspell”

Cast members from Godspell on Broadway participated in Broadway Remembers in NYC's Times Square on 9/11 last year (Photo: Liz Trimble)

Our daughter Lizabeth flew home from NYC during winter break for Pace University, where she’s a B.F.A. in acting student. We spent her last night in Scottsdale at the Sugar Bowl, where I got both a scoop of ice cream surrounded by a cream puff and the scoop on “Godspell” on Broadway.

Lizabeth loves the show, her first exposure to anything resembling a gospel of any sort, and I wanted her take before seeing a junior production being performed through Sun. Jan. 29 at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale. Basically it’s a giant song, dance and lovefest featuring pearls from the New Testament book of Matthew.

“Godspell,” originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak, features new lyrics (the Bible and an Episcopal hymnbook had first crack at it) and music by Stephen Schwartz — whose works from “Pippin” to “Wicked” are also high on Lizabeth’s list of favorites. The current revival of “Godspell” on Broadway opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre last October, and Lizabeth would see it over and over again were money no object.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

We compared “Godspell” notes via Skype after I saw the Spotlight Youth Theatre production of “Godspell,  Jr.” on Sunday — and I was quick to share my delight with both sets and costumes. Each reflects the hippie vibe associated most often with a 1973 film adaptation of the show, but the production stops short of taking all things “hip” and “groovy” too far. Bless them.

“Godspell, Jr.” works particularly well as a youth theater production because it’s less linear than most storytelling, and is easily adapted to all sorts of settings and skill levels. I loved the back-alley feel of Spotlight’s show — complete with graffiti-laden red brick wall, chain link fence and Salvation Army donation bin. Graffiti art is by Juan Evan Macias.

The script for “Godspell” leaves plenty of room for director deviations and actor ad lib, and Spotlight’s production takes full advantage of both. It’s infused with humor, but doesn’t go over the top. Most is the work of director Kenny Grossman, but he’s quick to credit the actors for improv elements that traveled from rehearsal to final production.

I was especially charmed by Samantha A. Isely’s comedic timing. Isely is “an avid performer of Spotlight” who attends Arizona Conservatory for the Arts and Academics in Peoria and sometimes seems to be channeling Carol Burnett. Ally Lansdowne and Carly Grossman delivered two of the best vocal performances, and ensemble vocals were quite beautiful.

I was thrilled to see a nice mix of new and veteran Spotlight performers in the cast. It’s always a good sign when youth theater companies routinely welcome new members into their family. Still, some loyal Spotlight fans in the audience left me feeling like a little girl peering over the fence at a really fun party. Some folks are put off by seeming self-adoration, so a bit of curbing the enthusiasm might be warranted for the high-pitched whistling types.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

The show’s main characters include Jesus, played by Brophy College Preparatory student EJ Dohring, who recently played Otto in the ACAA production of “Spring Awakening.” Costume designers Tamara and Leigh Treat nailed it by putting Dohring in white denim jeans and jean jacket — plus black FDNY t-shirt. I appreciate their homeage to modern day saviors of the non-celestial sort.

Also Judas, played by Arizona School for the Arts student Bransen Gates, recently seen as Ernst in ACAA’s “Spring Awakening.” Goodman shared that the great chemistry between Gates and Dohring was an important factor in casting the show. Gates shines with angst-filled scenes like the betrayal of Jesus, while Dohring excels with upbeat expressions of pure joy.

The Spotlight production of “Godspell, Jr.” features choreography by Amanda Paige. It’s fun, youthful and fresh — and succeeded in showcasing the movement talents of the entire cast. I also enjoyed the music direction by Mark 4Man. I don’t understand  the numeric name thing, but his fans are quick to laud  it.

“Godspell, Jr.” was orginally adapted and produced by Edgar Lansbury, Stuart Duncan and Joseph Beruh. Given its unqiue adaptability to the sensibilities of youth, I hope other youth theaters in the Valley will mount the work in coming years. Who doesn’t love material that leaves room for considering the mysterious ways of God — like Taylor Swift snagging the role of Eponine in an upcoming “Les Miserables” flick.

Performance of Godspell at Spotlight Youth Theatre in Glendale

Spotlight Youth Theatre previously performed “Les Miserables School Edition.” The next school adaptation on their plate is “Sweeney Todd School Edition,” which features book by Hugh Wheeler plus music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. They’ll also present “James and the Giant Peach” and “Annie, Jr.” this season.

Click here to learn more about Spotlight Youth Theatre auditions, camps, workshops and productions. Then get ready to enjoy the best pies in London.

— Lynn

Note: “Godspell, Jr.” at Spotlight Youth Theatre features hair and make-up by Angel DeMichael, properties managment by Vicki Grossman, stage management and lights by Vinny Jordan, and sound by Kenny Grossman.

Coming up: I’ve got something in common with Johnny Depp…

This post was updated with photos (by Craig Ross) and corrections on 1/18/12

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