Godspell has been around for 50 years, but the musical’s message of love, kindness, tolerance and loyalty is timeless. The high energy, entertaining production of this classic musical now playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, has been clearly modernized to reach a contemporary audience.
From the opening Prologue when
the 10-person cast all use smartphones as props to many modern references
including lampooning popular game shows, TV series and even Donald Trump, you
knew you were not in 1971 when the production had opened off Broadway.
Based on the Gospel of Matthew,
the show is a mixture of Scripture parables as told by Jesus loosely tied
together with an eclectic array of songs, such as rock, pop, folk and
vaudevillian, and dance. Yes, there is
Jesus (played superbly by Justin Calhoun) and John the Baptist/Judas (played splendidly
by Shane Lowry).
However, the other eight
characters, who all remain on the stage throughout the production as do the
aforementioned ones, will not be found in any version of the Bible. In fact,
the performers are assigned their own names rather than biblical or even
fictional ones. They comprise an
eccentric collection of comical folks, decked out in everyday street clothes,
all with different personalities, who work with Jesus to present lessons
through parodies of pop culture and politics. These moments elicit most of the laughs
in the show—not the lessons themselves but the manner in which they are
For example, Toby’s veteran
Jeffrey Shankle delivers hilarious impersonations during these sequences with
none better than that of Donald Trump when the topic of taxes comes up.
Though enjoyable, Godspell seems to be searching for an
identity. In many places the show features full-on comedy with vaudevillian
shtick, slapstick, corniness and other high-jinks especially during the first
act. In other parts, serious messaging, teachable moments from Jesus and, of
course, the tragic ending of Jesus’ life on Earth contribute to a noticeable
change in mood. Sometimes, the solemn and virtuous lessons can be overwhelmed
and distracted by the comedy.
With music and lyrics by Stephen
Schwartz who went on to pen Pippin and
Wicked, and a book by John-Michael
Tebelak, Godspell whose most
well-known song “Day By Day” has become a staple of high school and community
theatre as well as numerous professional mountings, revivals and tours since
Co-Directors Mark Minnick and David James—both Helen Hayes Award recipients—masterfully guide the performers and technical crew in a cohesive, fast-paced production. Mr. Minnick also choreographed the production and deftly arranged dance numbers in a tighter than normal area of the in-the-round stage because of the set pieces that remained onstage throughout.
The performers are called on to dance, ride a
bicycle and move about navigating and weaving around these set pieces that
include benches, bleachers, lamp posts, and a swing while staying in synch with
the music, which was ably performed by conductor Ross Scott Rawlings and his
4-piece orchestra. (Nathan Scavilla conducts in other performances. )
So much was this orchestra
integrated into the show that it was actually visible to the audience whereas
in most other Toby’s productions they are concealed by a curtain in the upper
level. Mr. Rawlings even briefly participated in one of the parable games from
As Jesus, handsome Justin
Calhoun is masterful on many levels. Mr. Calhoun lights up the stage with
charisma and energy, and his beautiful tenor voice soars in “Save the People,” “All
the Best” and “Alas for You.”
In a simply dazzling performance of a challenging dialogue-heavy role, Mr. Calhoun, showcases his versatility to the delight of the audience. Aside from his excellent vocals, he dances with precision and clearly seems to enjoy himself while doing so. He also demonstrates his athleticism by using a jump rope while singing and manages to juggle two basketballs. Mr. Calhoun’s comedic lines are delivered with gusto, and when called upon in dramatic moments like when Jesus is experiencing self-doubt, he pulls that off as well.
"Mr. Calhoun lights up the stage with charisma and energy..."
And boy does his character show
patience! Trying to earnestly teach the Gospel, Jesus must overcome the rowdiness,
unruliness, and smart-alecky behavior of the troupe. Mr. Calhoun demonstrates
the right balance of exasperation but mainly patience as he plows through the
Shane Lowry does a fine job in portraying
John and then Judas. As John the Baptist, he is Jesus’ most loyal fan and most fervent
disciple. Later as Judas, Mr. Lowry further puts his acting skills on display as
a doubter and then a rebel leading to the climactic conclusion. He dances
smoothly and sings ably in “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and “All for the
Each of the talented company
members has a chance to shine and lead off a song with the rest of the company
joining in. Janine Sunday sings the show’s popular number “Day By Day” with a sparkling-clear, lovely voice. Crystal
Freeman delivers a powerful and emotional performance in “O, Bless the Lord, My
Soul”—one of the show’s standouts.
Rounding out the excellent
female cast are Heather Beck (“Light of the World,” “Turn Back, O Man,” “On the
Willows”), MaryKate Brouillet (“By My Side” with Janine Sunday) and Tina Marie
DeSimone (“Learn Your Lessons Well”)—all exceptional performers through voice,
dancing and comedy.
DeCarlo Raspberry, showcasing
his powerful vocals, is sensational in his moving rendition of “All Good Gifts.”
It is another standout performance.
Jeffrey Shankle and David James are
always high camp in Toby’s productions, and Godspell
is no exception. They are hilarious throughout with their antics and
comedic lines. But as many Toby’s patrons know, they can also sing quite well.
Mr. Shankle is outstanding in “We
Beseech Thee” and “On the Willows.” Mr. James performs nicely with Heather Beck
in “Light of the World” and “Turn Back, O Man,”
The technical crew is proficient
in contributing to the success of this production. David A. Hopkins, who also
designed the simple and functional set, does a superb job with the lighting
effects especially in the second act. John Pantaziz’s sound design is also spot-on.
Godspell at Toby’s
is a quality production aided by superb direction, strong technical elements
and a lively, talented cast. The musical provides teachable moments that convey
timeless messages of love and kindness and delivers high energy performances,
lots of laughs and joyful music.
It also has a bit of history with
Toby’s as it was the first show on Toby’s stage 41 years ago. Toby Orenstein,
the owner and artistic director of Toby’s, dedicated this revival production to
the memory of James W. Rouse who founded the city of Columbia by bringing
people together as is the message of Godspell.
Running time. Two hours and 15
minutes with an intermission.
through October 31 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia,
MD 21044. Tickets may be purchased by
calling the Box Office 410-730-8311 or visiting Toby's website as well
Toby’s website also contains the
theater’s updated Covid-19 policies and protocols that are in place to ensure
the health and safety of the employees and patrons including the requirement
that proof of Covid-19 vaccination must be presented or proof a negative
Covid-19 test taken with 72 hours of the performance.
|Justin Calhoun shines as Jesus in Godspell
Photos by Jeri Tidwell Photography