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Godspell.

So last night Earl and I went to see “Godspell”. The popular show has found itself back on Broadway, this time at the Circle in the Square Theatre. It started previews on Thursday night, the show officially opens in November.

“Godspell” is my favorite musical, hands down. It is the first musical I was introduced to, way back in junior high. I have seen the show a number of times in various venues including high school auditoriums, the MUNY in St. Louis and on the stage of a few different national touring companies. I have several incarnations of the soundtrack on my iPod and I used “On The Willows” as an audition piece a couple of times in high school and during my first attempt at college. Like a lot of folks, this show is near and dear to my heart. Last night did not disappoint.

“Godspell” is a customizable show in that it can easily be placed in any time period (back in the 80s I saw one high school frame the show in Queen Victoria’s time!) and that’s one of the things I like about the show. One of the national touring companies that passed through Utica a decade or so ago made the show very techno; props included a cross made out of discarded televisions and the music was made very “American Idol”. It wasn’t my favorite take on the show and last night I was worried that this was going to continue the tradition of taking on modern times and lose some of the innocence and sweetness of the story.

They didn’t do that.

I’m not going to get into a lot of detail as far as the production goes because I’m encouraging people to see it when you’re in New York and enjoy the experience of this show, because it is a lot of fun and we found it to be worth every penny. The songs are so familiar to many folks, so I thought I would add my two cents because it’s my blog and I can do what I want here. I’ll try very hard to avoid spoilers.

As the show opens, there’s a lot of “technology” present (think cell phone usage). The folks on stage interact wonderfully during “Tower of Babble” except that I found the arrangement of the song hard to interpret. Granted, “Tower of Babble” is suppose to sound like “babble” and it did, but I think it was sounding like too much babble, because it was a little overwhelming with all the overlapping lyrics going on at the same time. At Circle in the Square, you sit REALLY close to the stage (we were in the front row on one side and the stage was at arm level and only 1/2 an arm’s length away). The actors’ voices were brilliant, this I could tell already during the first song, but the arrangement of the tune was a little distracting.

There was a surprising prop used during “Prepare Ye” that I did not expect to be used on stage. Don’t worry, you’ll make it through the performance unscathed, even in the front row.

Now everyone knows “Day By Day”, that’s probably the most well known song from the show because it spent several weeks on the Top 40 and spiritual folks sing this song all the time. The lyrics are just six lines sung over and over, leaving the emotion to build with the musical construction and arrangement of the song. The first part of the song is written in three-quarters time and this is where it was a little wonky for me. First of all Anna Maria Perez de Tagle sings this beautifully. Her voice has a sweetness to it that compliments the message brilliantly and she is very enjoyable with her performance, but the phrasing is slightly out of whack during the three-quarters time part of the piece. I’m pretty confident it’s part of the arrangement because the band (which is scattered all over the house, by the way) was doing the same thing. It felt like the lyrics were in four-four time when the music was in three-quarter time and as a person very familiar with the track, I found it disconcerting and it was running contrary to my music theory training I’ve had over the years. The vocalizations were brilliant, though and once we moved to the four-four time, everything felt familiar again. I have to admit that I didn’t expect the Electric Slide, though.

I LOVED the interpretation of “Learn Your Lessons Well”. It’s a lot of fun with a lot of oomph in the vocals without going over the top.

Way back in the 90s a London Company recorded a soundtrack CD without actually performing the show on stage, and in the process recorded one of the blandest renditions of “Bless The Lord” I have ever heard. Then that techno National tour came along and “Bless The Lord” went crazy with the techno and melisma (think Christina Aguilera and the National Anthem), so I was terrified that last night’s performance was going to be another yodeling, howling rendition of “Bless The Lord”.

I was terrified for no reason because last night “Bless The Lord” was AMAZING. Absolutely amazing. Lindsay Mendez has a great, strong yet controlled voice and thankfully does NOT engage in ridiculous vocal acrobatics/urban yodeling to share her love for this song. I think this may have been my favorite performance of the night, though the music theory training kicked in and the instrumental arrangement has some weird key change (or wonky chord progressions) going on towards the end of the song. I’d have to hear it again to see if I like it or not (I don’t think I do), but I found it slightly distracting from Lindsay’s wonderful performance. It’s not like Barry Manilow grabbed the song and added six progressive key changes to the score, but it does shift back and forth to a key (or through strange chord progressions that aren’t in the same key) that feels off a little bit. Lindsay is brilliant in it though, and I’m going to be finding more of her work to add to the iPod. Quick aside – coming out of Act 2, a couple members of the cast play around on the piano before Act 2 officially kicks off and Lindsay really camps up some melisma on some of the songs they’re singing, and I appreciated that. Some of her stylings in this bit of fun were identical to that techno touring version… I’m happy it was saved for that and not in the meat of her performances.

“All Good Gifts” is another one of my favorite tunes and Telly Leung does not disappoint at all. I loved the arrangement, I loved the sweetness of his voice and well, it’s Wes from the Warblers on “Glee”, so there were squeals from the young teenaged girls sitting behind us.

“Light of the World” stays pretty true to the familiar and is fun as well. In fact, all of songs in Act 1 felt familiar but still fresh, aside from those few distracting key changes.

During intermission the audience has the opportunity to go up on stage and have some “wine” and interact a little bit with the cast members that have hung around. They did this in DC years ago and I loved it. For some reason I can’t remember it happening at the Muny in St. Louis when we saw it a couple of years ago, but that could just be faulty memory. We had a nice, very brief chat with one of the cast. She seemed to be a genuine person.

Act 2 rolls in with “Turn Back, O Man”, where it was performed by understudy Julia Mattison. She did a Mae West take and was cute with her improvisations. Loved a reference to “Jesus Take The Wheel”. I heard that the original performer was weeping in the lobby after the show the night before so perhaps that’s why Julia was on stage. She was great.

Now lead Hunter Parrish came in with “Alas For You” and something weird just happened with his vocals. The thing is, I can’t decide if it was intentional or if he just lost his way completely, because in a way it sounded like he was intentionally trying to sound “overwrought” with his voice breaking, but on the other hand it came across like Peter Brady singing “When It’s Time To Change”. I’m inclined to blame this on the arrangement because Hunter’s vocals were spot on for all of his other performances, but this was just weird. If they were just a goof, I apologise for bringing them up because heck, I know I’ve lost my way in a song during my little performances back in the day but something tells me it was suppose to be that way. We’ll blame the arrangement. The one thing about Hunter’s “Alas For You” is that it’s not as powerful as previous incarnations I’ve heard. In fact, the performance of “By My Side” has more power in the vocal stylings (which it shouldn’t). “By My Side” is the one song I was somewhat disappointed with in the entire show. The performer seems way too angry for the song. The accompanying vocals from the other performers are beautiful (I loved the harmonisation in this rendition) but the lead’s voice was way too strong for the mood of the song and she looked very angry. She’s one of the cast members I had the opportunity to talk with and she seems very nice in person so I was kind of sad that this song disappointed me.

“We Beseech Thee” brought us back on track and there was more prop use that I didn’t expect but was a lot of fun! Singing while bouncing can be tough but everyone did just fine.

Wow, I’m long winded in this entry. Fast forward to the finale, which is powerful, emotional and well done. One of the best performances of “On The Willows” and the finale I have seen or heard. The arrangement of the finale is cool in that there is harmonisation where I haven’t heard it before and I want to thunk someone upside the head for not doing it before. Brilliant! It compliments the unity of the group during this emotional part of the show wonderfully. I hope high school productions take note.

Overall, the show is a lot of fun and had me laugh out loud a couple of times with the inclusion of modern one-liners and improvisations. The score sounds familiar enough to keep older generations and those familiar with the show happy but fresh enough to sound contemporary. I really hope that we get to see the show once it’s opened officially because this one I would definitely see again. I recommend anyone visiting New York to see this show as it has a wonderful message that is well told through the skills of the performers, both spoken and melodically.

The beauty of last night’s performance was that it felt like the show had opened as opposed to being in previews. There was a standing ovation from the audience and it was well deserved.

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