By John Baggett
It’s almost Easter time, so it would make sense that a lot of venues are going to be taking advantage of the season, be it various Passion plays, screenings of the 1956 classic, “The Ten Commandments,” or the new biopic, “The Case for Christ,” which is playing in theatres now. Tyler Civic Theatre is also doing their part, with their production of ”Godspell.”
Based, for the most part, on “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” “Godspell” is the story of Jesus (Justin Forward), preaching the gospel to a group of homeless people, an update from the hippies in the original play. Along with John the Baptist (Dustin Simington), he delivers the Sermon on the Mount, along with his message through a series of parables. The second act of the play picks up in the days prior to the crucifixion, including the betrayal by Judas (Simington), the last supper, and ultimately his death and resurrection.
“Godspell” was written by Stephen Schwartz, with the book written by John Michael Tabelak, best known for, well, this and “Wicked.” The original production opened in 1971 with numerous revivals and updates over the years. The Civic Theatre production was updated even further to reflect our current political climate, beginning with a video montage of war and news footage, featuring our Presidents from Ronald Reagan through Donald Trump.
The show was directed by Justin Wayne Purser, who previously directed ”Charlotte’s Web.” The musical director was Charles Praytor, who has previously served as musical director for “The Little Mermaid” and will be directing the Civic Theatre/Liberty Hall production of “Rock of Ages.” It was also choreographed by TCT veteran Shelby Moy, who did the choreography for “The Little Mermaid,” “Hairspray” and “Footloose.”
This production is incredibly innovative, daring, and moving; a refreshing update to the material (not that there was anything wrong with the previous versions). This modern, almost near future, take is sure to ruffle some feathers, but that has always been the point of theatre – to comment and critique the world around us. Those who will get hung up on an impression of our current president are going to miss the entire message of the show. “Godspell” began as an anti-war, anti-racism allegory, using the words of Christ, and that still holds true.
In his debut performance at the Civic Theatre, Forward is riveting as Jesus, both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Also making his Civic Theatre debut is Simington, who I had previously seen as Roger in the APEX production of “RENT,” and is equally as powerful and heartbreaking. The rest of this truly wonderful cast includes TCT veterans Emily Casper, Mary Creath, Hannah Pascaul, Kendall Phillips, Stephen Rainwater (in a wheelchair), Caroline Reyes, Helen Strotman, and Jess Vinton. Everyone in this cast shines and will make you laugh, make you cry, and you can’t help but relate to them.
“Godspell” is a daring, bold production that delivers a message of love, tolerance, and one heck of a catchy score. It goes to show that even these old standards of theatre not only still have life in them, but sometimes can come back bigger and better than ever. This is a wonderful production that has to be seen. So, get your tickets now and experience this story with your entire family.
“Godspell” opened on April 7 and runs through April 16. Tyer Civic Theatre is located at 400 Rose Park Drive in Tyler. To buy tickets, call (903)592-0561 or visit https://buy.ticketstothecity.com/purchase.php?event_id=4464