Monday, March 07, 2011

Times Gone By

Joan Tupponce hasn’t been updating her blog recently but WCVE has been getting better (IMHO) at posting her audio reviews on their website. You can go to this link for a listing of all the recent ones they’ve broadcast, including her take on the still-running “Legacy of Light.”

I’ve had a few occasions to talk about “Godspell” since it closed two weekends ago and I’ve been intrigued at people’s impressions. On one extreme, one particularly harsh friend called the show “dated and dumb.” On the other, someone commenting on the post below said Nick Shackleford portrayal of Jesus was “one of the best performances I've seen in Richmond in a long time.” Among my critical pals, the response was also varied with even the most positive voicing some reservations, even the most negative admitting to some nice aspects of the Cadence production.

“Godspell” will always be a show I have a hard time being thoroughly objective about. It was the first musical I remember seeing as a kid and was really my entrée into any interest in theater. My high school’s production when I was a sophmore will in many ways remain the gold standard against which I compare all productions I’ve seen since, a now gauzy euphoric memory infused with the joy of discovery. This poses both positive and negative challenges for me when considering any production: I automatically react with excitement when I hear that fabulous music but I also instinctively know nothing will measure up to my memory.

But even carrying that baggage into the Cadence production, I left having really enjoyed it. I loved the 60s-era vibe that director Anna Johnson gave the production, the overall sense of freshness and innocense that emanated from the performances (this vibe was one some of my pals specifically did not enjoy). She also made good use of what was undoubtedly a challenging performance space. The choreography by Leslie Owens-Harrington was fantastic, skillfully keeping the players in compelling motion throughout a somewhat cramped space. Kim Fox’s music direction was strong and assured.

There weren’t any weak spots in the cast, a real testament to Ms. Johnson’s ability to lure top-notch talent to her projects. It’s always a joy to see new talent seize the opportunity a production like this provides and the unbelievably young T’arah Craig was a revelation: agile in her movement, sincere in her performance and amazing in her voice, partnering with Aly Wepplo to perform the sweetest version of “By My Side” I’ve ever heard. Daniel Cimo is someone who seems born to act, his emotions coming across so clearly from the stage, and it was impossible not to get caught up in Chris Hester’s antic energy. Carolyn Meade’s “Turn Back Old Man” was a distinct highlight and Wepplo seemed to be genuinely choked up at the show’s end, adding a real poignance to the finale.

But while both Shackleford and Russell Rowland did fine jobs, I think there was something of an inbalance in their relationship. Basically, I think Rowland is such a forcefull presence, particularly with that voice, that it was hard for Shackleford to be more compelling. And I wanted Jesus to be more compelling than Judas.

Another issue for me just has to do with the actual story of “Godspell,” which I was much more willing to let flow over me when I was younger. I’ve read a fair amount on the historical Jesus and the history of Christianity in the past decade. I’ve also had a touchy ideological relationship with the faith over the years, particularly with guidance offered by its more fundamental adherents. So its hard for me to put that stuff out of my head and just take in the dramatization of the history of Jesus as a nice little story (one of the reasons I appreciated the “free love” era vibe of the production was it helped me put all of that out of my mind as much as possible.)

So, in the final analysis, I thought it was quite a fine production, another feather in the cap of Cadence’s still-young cap. I was particularly glad that my sons got to see it because it’s a show I’ve wanted them to see and I’m happy they saw an excellent production instead of a marginal one. But seeing it also has had the lingering effect of making me wonder how anxious I’ll be to run out and catch the next production of “Godspell” that shows up on the radar (a Broadway production is being planned for this summer).

Speaking of Broadway, a new production I think people in regional theaters across the country will be checking out with interest is “Good People,” starring the always-intriguing Frances McDormand. David Lindsay-Abaire’s work has been a favorite of local theaters for years – Firehouse has done great productions of “Fuddy Mears” and “Rabbit Hole,” just to name a couple – so I would expect “Good People” to show up on a local stage as soon as the rights are available.

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