I didn't wanna go to Godspell, and that's the god's honest truth. To be frank(incense), I'd had my fill of that Jesus fella, and his birthday was still a couple of weeks away. That's what happens when they start putting Xmas merchandise on the store shelves before Halloween even hits; it's enough to give a nice Jewish boy like myself a serious complex. Between the outdoor screening of White Christmas at Harry P. Leu Gardens and taking in the twinkle lights along Winter Garden's downtown, I figured my civic seasonal duty was already done, never mind making time for a biblical musical with a less-than-stellar reputation among theatrical connoisseurs.
But the folks at GOAT (Greater Orlando Actors Theatre) just won't take "naaaah" for an answer. In response to their insistent entreaties, I broke down and resolved to return to their recently established Colonial Drive location, where I recently saw their solid (if not earthshaking) production of A Streetcar Named Desire. If they want coverage, I'll give it to 'em," I said to myself, still uncertain why a professed professional company would devote their resources to producing a play most often embraced by parochial grammar schools and underbudgeted amateurs. That's how I found myself, on a frigid Friday night at the end of an exhausting day, fully prepared to find a lump of coal in GOAT's stocking.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to Gethsemane. I entered the Cameo Theatre to find it transformed into "Club 3:16," complete with glow-stick-gripping goths gyrating to rave music. This was my first clue that director Paul Castaneda had in mind something more than the typically tepid Godspell that I expected. When the show-opening "Prologue: Tower of Babel" began not as a traditional round, but rather an aggressively incomprehensible rant screamed over a Marilyn Manson musical loop, I had to check my program to make sure I was at the right show.
Once John the Baptist/Judas (Wyatt Glover) entered to the sound of the shofar horn, singing a more recognizable arrangement of "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," the show settled into its familiar form. Jesus (Kevin Sigman) appears to his flock of disciples, and together they act out New Testament parables in the style of semi-improvised sketch comedy. The book and lyrics are credited to creator John-Michael Tebelak and composer Stephen Schwartz, but large sections are lifted verbatim from the Gospel of Matthew and the Episcopal hymnal. Sunday-school parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are rendered as games of charades, silent films and vaudeville routines. Jesus is inevitably denied, crucified on an aluminum ladder and resurrected to sing "Beautiful City" as an encore.
The oversized cast deserves kudos for injecting so much unanticipated excitement in the show, starting with Sigman, who follows Victor Garber's footprints in creating his own interpretation of an unconventional, unassuming savior. He demonstrated his swing singing during intermissions of Streetcar; here he wraps his flexible pipes around prog-rock arrangements borrowed from the 2000 touring production. Sigman's Jesus has a quiet charisma, a slyly sardonic sense of humor and can even do a passable soft-shoe in sneakers. I've known Sigman for over a decade (back when I played Riff Raff to his Frank N. Furter at the former AMC Fashion Square cinema), and this is the biggest, best leading role I've seen him tackle to date.
He's balanced by Glover's Judas, who telegraphs his theological transformation through an "I `Heart` Me" T-shirt. Glover shows off his fine pitch in "Prepare Ye" and a flair for patter in "All for the Best"; if his second-act betrayal seems undermotivated, it's more the script's fault than his. The ensemble of disciples and doubters is too enormous to name them all, but a couple deserve special mention: Corinne Mahoney delivers the overworked AM radio staple "Day by Day" with innocent clarity, and gifted ad-libber Erin Brenna belts "Turn Back, O Man" as Mae West-ian burlesque.
What must have seemed refreshingly experimental as a Carnegie Mellon grad-school project in 1971 has inevitably become dated in the decades since. But throughout the production, director Castaneda and crew do an admirable job of dragging it — kicking and screaming — into modern times. With copious self-referential asides and pop-culture references to boy bands, beat-boxing and Star Wars, they manage to make it to at least 1999, if not fully into the 21st century. The bits come so fast and furious that it's a relief when the show slows down in Act 2 for "By My Side."
I'm certain nothing could equal the comic nirvana experienced at the legendary 1972 Toronto production (launching pad for future superstars like Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Garber), but GOAT gave me a taste of what audiences once found so appealing about this well-roasted chestnut. They can't overcome the show's essential sin of reducing the most esoteric and anti-Semitic of the gospels into kid-friendly corn (at least the "his blood be upon us and our children" libel is absent). But at several points I thought, "If someone held a gun to my head and forced me to direct Godspell, this is how I might do it," which is very high praise indeed. (through Dec. 20 at Cameo Theatre, 1013 E. Colonial Drive; $18; 407-872-8451; www.goatgroup.com)firstname.lastname@example.org