Godspell

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UVSC’s production of “Godspell” is a show that guilts you into feeling its emotion, without doing much to deserve it.

When Jesus is crucified, you’re sort of religiously obligated to feel sad about it — even if this particular Jesus (Ryan Wooden) has never been anything more than a two-dimensional cartoon character to us.

Wooden, like most of the ensemble cast, puts his whole energy into the part in this loose assemblage of acted-out stories from St. Matthew. The idea is to present Christ as a great public speaker, a man with a sense of humor who was not above using any tools necessary to teach his lessons. So we’re not expecting the gentle, bearded man in a robe we usually see; we’re expecting a dynamic, charismatic guy with a quick wit and natural magnetism.

Unfortunately, this performance comes up short. The youthful, ruddy-faced Wooden is obviously earnest, doing his best to command the stage, speaking quickly and with forced zeal like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. But the simple fact is, he is overshadowed by a much smoother and natural Ken Foody, who plays John the Baptist and probably would have been a better choice to play the pivotal role of Jesus.

(The differences between the two actors are pointed up in the delightful ’20s-style song-and-dance number “All for the Best,” in which they put on a “dueling singers” routine. Jesus is declared “winner,” but anyone watching can tell that shouldn’t be the case.)

Singling out one actor, especially one obviously giving it his all, may not be fair. But in a show like this, where everything hinges on having an attention-grabbing Jesus, that actor makes or breaks the show.

He is supported by a large ensemble of followers, all dressed colorfully. Some productions of this show have had the cast members dressed as clowns, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be. Their demeanor and style of humor is definitely clownish; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

One thing everyone has in common is singing ability. Wooden’s sweet voice is particularly effective during the crucifixion scene (the only serious part of the show), and cast member Traci Brewster steals with the show with her vampy “Turn Back, Oh Man” that opens Act II.

In the end, we’re supposed to feel sad that Jesus has been betrayed and killed. But that’s not fair, considering there has been no attempt at a plot up to that point. The parables and vignettes are mostly entertaining, and the show works fine on that level. But then, out of thin air, the show finds a plot and suddenly wants us to feel emotions for characters we’ve never gotten to know beyond a superficial level. It’s not fair, and it doesn’t work.

Don’t worry about the show being sacrilegious; it’s not, unless you think Jesus having a sense of humor is heresy. Worry more about the show meandering for 105 minutes — albeit it with several bright spots — and then suddenly suggesting it had a point all along, but failing to tell us what that point is. In the theater world, anyway, THAT’S blasphemy.

My theology allows for a Jesus with a sense of humor. In fact, I don't think I could have faith in a deity who DIDN'T laugh at the ironies and oddities of life, and in fact, I doubt Jesus could have survived his rather difficult mortal life without a sense of humor. I know I can barely manage my comparatively easy life without laughing.

But would Jesus be a high tenor? I don't know, maybe.

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