Proof of Vaccination And Masks Are Required For All Events.
Click Here For Safety Protocols

‘Godspell’ Review: Musical Theater Rises From the Dead – The New York Times

Front row, from left: Emily Koch, Isabel Jordan and Najah Hetsberger in the show, which is being presented under a tent behind one of the theater’s regular venues. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The Berkshire Theater Group put on the first professional musical in the U.S. since the pandemic lockdown, and itʼs a revival in every sense.

Read the article in The New York Times

By Ben Brantley

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — And it came about that the faith of the devoted was sorely tested during the months of famine, and there was a great hunger to believe again. Thus on a hazy night in August, several score of them gathered, with their lower faces hidden as the times demanded, in a parking lot in a small city in the lap of the Berkshire Mountains. They were looking for signs of a resurrection.

It felt right that a tent — with socially distanced folding chairs set up inside — had been assembled behind the Colonial Theater here, as if for a revival meeting. The 1971 musical “Godspell,” which was being reincarnated by the Berkshire Theater Group, is based on parables from the New Testament, and its leading man is named Jesus.

But the creed being promulgated so poignantly here, in a mood that might be described as highly creative caution, wasn’t so much Christianity as the embattled religion of theater, the practice of which has all but disappeared in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The very existence of this version of John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz’s half-century-old slice of story-theater uplift qualifies as something of a miracle. As a general rule, summer stagings of “Godspell,” a favorite of church and school theaters, are as common as crab grass. But this “Godspell” has historic singularity on its side. It is the first professional musical, sanctioned by Actors Equity, to open in this country since the great pandemic lockdowns began.

This means that the show, directed by Alan Filderman and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre, had to follow rules of Talmudic rigor, in compliance with the Massachusetts State Department of Health, to keep its 10-member cast and its 75-member audience safe from infection. Such dictums have been hard enough to enforce in supermarkets.

But in live theater, which relies on communal intimacy? And “Godspell,” which traditionally features sunny young casts cuddling and romping like a herd of puppies, is one of the huggiest musicals ever created.

That’s one of the reasons hardened critics have tended to sneer at “Godspell.” Check out the reviews that have appeared in The New York Times over the years, and you’ll find descriptions like “nauseating” (Clive Barnes, 1971); “recalls nothing so much as ʻThe Muppet Show’” (Bruce Weber, 2000), and “relentlessly perky” (Charles Isherwood, 2010).

But historical and social context counts for a lot in how a work of art is perceived. If you’ve been stranded in a desert with nothing to drink, a communion chalice of grape soda may taste like the finest Champagne. Having experienced theater only via computer screens for some 150 days, I was thirsty for any kind of in-person encounter with flesh-and-blood practitioners.

I hasten to add here that this “Godspell” isn’t just better than nothing. And it’s as deeply affecting as it is not despite, but because of, its well-worn material. In reimagining a string of biblical life lessons and folkified hymns and gospel songs for the age of the coronavirus, Mr. Filderman and company are speaking to contemporary fears bred by isolation and inaction.

The production begins with the cast members describing what their lives have been like during lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests. (The original “Godspell” portrayed a battling dialogue of famous philosophers.)

They have all had their acting careers derailed, and they describe feelings of fear, even mortal fear, and hopelessness. And they worry that the theater they knew and lived by might indeed be a thing of the past.

Dressed not in the flower-child glad rags associated with the 1973 “Godspell” film but in Hunter Kaczorowski’s inventive variations on denim work and play clothes, they proceed not only to speak but to embody the show’s most crucial precept. You know, do unto others, etc.

The golden rule here takes the form of their nearly always keeping at least six feet from one another. Whenever they have to cross one another’s paths they make sure their masks (bunched around their necks) are pulled into place. When a chorus sings Schwartz’s tuneful earwig pop gospel — an activity known to let spittle fly — it does so behind the transparent panels of Randall Parsons’s beautifully utilitarian set. (Matthew E. Adelson’s patterned lighting helps keep it from looking like a doctor’s waiting room.)

Despite being part of a cast of 10, each performer is up there alone. They usually dance (even tap dance) in place, sometimes seated. (High points: Nicholas Edwards as Jesus and Tim Jones as Judas doing a vaudeville-style duet with yardsticks instead of canes, and lots of handsanitizing shtick, and Zach Williams vamping like a killer chorine from “Chicago.”) When the script calls for physical contact — which includes being baptized, embracing, slapping a cheek (so the other can be turned) and, of course, a Judas kiss — action and reaction are delivered in separate, distanced places.

As a metaphor for how so many of us have been living since March, this form of theatrical communication feels both heartbreaking and valiant. We adapt, we make do, even as we long to return to the age of the handshake and the hug.

This style of performance also has the advantage of scaling back the antic, exhibitionist quotient of “Godspell.” As in most latter-day productions, there are interpolated cute contemporary references (they here include Dad jokes and the Occupy movement). But there’s a new sense of reflectiveness here, and you actually feel you’re seeing the show’s precepts put into action.

Of course, the telling of the parables — the prodigal son, the good Samaritan — still fill lots of stage time, a bit tediously, with the performers adopting cute accents. It’s when the cast members, most of whom embody a multitude of roles, sang that I found my mandatory face mask was often wet with tears.

It’s not that all have exceptional voices (although Alex Getlin, doing “By My Side,” written by Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon, has an Orphic folk alto to melt stone). But they sing with clarity, conviction and a radiant gratitude for the chance to be there. And neither they nor Andrew Baumer’s musical direction ever push too hard for soul-rousing, hand-clapping effect (not even during the show’s breakout hit, “Day by Day,” sincerely sung by Isabel Jordan).

As for the man of the moment — or should I say of eternity? — Edwards’s open-faced Jesus is no holier-than-thou, preachy prophet. In song, he projects a beatified ambivalence that turns mixed feelings into a state of grace. His voice segues from burnished mellowness into a big, blazing brightness that’s always underscored with pain.

When he finishes singing the ballad “Beautiful City,” he looks both ravenously hopeful and devastated as he tries to envision a radiant future. I never thought I’d say this, but I know exactly how Jesus feels.

Plan Your Visit

Read our suggestions on where to dine, and where to hang your hat.

Get Started
Did You Know?
Just like NPR, Berkshire Theatre Group depends on the generous giving of its members!
Join Today!
We believe the performing arts can transform a community.
Learn More
Of the 16,000 Berkshire County school children, we serve 13,000 through our BTG PLAYS! Year-Round Educational Programs.
Learn More
Theatre is the place where we go to understand what lies in the human heart.
Learn More
BTG's buildings, on two campuses in Stockbridge and Pittsfield, are historic treasures.
Learn More
Berkshire Theatre Group believes that the creative arts are dependent on a free society that encourages freedom of speech and debate.
Learn More
In a Boston Globe article by Don Aucoin on Covid‑19, Artistic Director Kate Maguire said:
"Out of need will come the way. Once the pandemic ebbs, whenever that is, there will be an incredible need to gather again." The theatre has existed from the time of the Greeks. We will go on.
Join Our Mailing List

Receive the latest BTG News, Updates, Special Offers, and more right to your inbox.

Subscribe

News & Articles

Wrapping up 2021 at BTG

By Kate Maguire, Artistic Director, CEO All of us at Berkshire Theatre Group want to thank you, our patrons, for joining us in 2021 as we continue to navigate an … Read On

NINA SIMONE

American singer, songwriter, musical arranger and civil rights activist Dramaturgical Research by Elaine Stoughton Cox Eunice Kathleen Waymon (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003), known professionally as Nina Simone, was an … Read On

You're gonna wish you were here, at the Colonial on 2/5! 💫

The Machine has sold out theaters, premier showcase rooms and casinos across North America, Europe and Asia, performed at renowned music festivals such as Bonnaroo, Riverbend & more. 

Link in bio!
13 0
🚨NEW CONCERT ALERT!🚨 
The Misty Blues will perform their latest album "ONE LOUDER" in its entirety for the first time at The Colonial Theatre, February 11 at 7:30pm! Get your tickets before they're gone!  #linkinbio
17 0
“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream...” -MLK Jr.

Today we honor the life and work of Dr. King, whose fight for justice ignited liberation and civil rights movements around the world.
24 0
You’ll be “amazed” at this chart-topping, award-winning pop-country band! 🤩 LONESTAR is coming to the Colonial April 1! This show is selling fast– don’t miss out! 
#linkinbio #lonestar #intheberkshires #BTG2022 #country #pop #livemusic
34 0
Are you going to Scarborough Fair? 🌿

If you sang that instead of reading it, this is the concert for you! Through songs, stories, trivia and humor,  The Guthrie Brothers Jeb and Jock pay homage to the music of Simon & Garfunkel. 
#linkinbio #simonandgarfunkel #intheberkshires #BTG2022 #lovepittsfield
15 0
Dead of Winter Jam is coming... ⚡️

Hosted by Rev Tor's Dead Man's Waltz (formerly Steal Your Peach), this annual mid-winter celebration honors 57 years of Grateful Dead music and includes a slew of special guests to be announced! Come jam with us!! 
#linkinbio
24 0
💥LIVE STREAMING TONIGHT– Hershey Felder presents Mozart and Figaro in Vienna! 💥A portion of proceeds will benefit BTG! #linkinbio 

Most opera lovers and classical music fans are familiar with the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his operas. But few know the colorful life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, who served as the librettist on three of the composer’s best-known operas, “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and Cosi fan tutte.” #hersheyfelder #hersheyfelderpresents
46 0
Our production of Irving Berlin’s WHITE CHRISTMAS was voted the Most Anticipated Production of a Musical! ✨ Congratulations to all! 
📷: @ekrwcreative 
.
.
#whitechristmas #BTG2021 #intheberkshires #musical
79 3
Congratulations to the phenomenal Felicia Curry 🌟 she was voted Best Performer in a Musical for her role as Nina Simone in NINA SIMONE: FOUR WOMEN!
64 0
Don’t let 2022 just be another brick in the wall 🧱 celebrate the new year with new concerts at the Colonial! Up next is The Machine’s incredible Pink Floyd experience, complete with all of the tracks you love and a dazzling, elaborate light show! 🎆 #linkinbio #pinkfloyd #intheberkshires
23 0
We don’t know about you, but we are feeling 2022! 🌟 Cheers to the New Year! 🥂🎊
35 0
Any Floyd fans? 🔨 The Machine comes to the Colonial February 5! The Machine explores collective improvisation paralleling early 1970s Pink Floyd. Their use of theatrical elements and elaborate stage displays will light up the Colonial February 5, 2022! #linkinbio
33 2
Hershey Felder Season Pass⠀
There’s still time to get your exclusive pass to a season of exciting music and SAVE! ⠀
This season pass Includes LIVE PREMIERE AIRING, plus unlimited continuous on demand access to Season 1 and Season 2 (Oct 4, 2021-Dec 31, 2022), unlimited access to all LIVE FROM FLORENCE SHOWS, and Access to BEHIND THE SCENES Events! ⠀
⠀
#linkinbio #hersheyfelder #seasonpass
27 2
May your every wish come true 🌟❤️💚#merrychristmaseve
63 0
Happy Closing to WHITE CHRISTMAS! ❄️🎄 What a wonderful gift this production has been. Have a safe and happy holiday! 
📷: @ekrwcreative 
.
.
.
#whitechristmas #BTG2021 #intheberkshires #lovepittsfield
105 0
May your days be merry and bright ✨ have a safe and happy holiday season from all of us at BTG! ❄️🌟
28 2
It may be cold outside but WHITE CHRISTMAS is sure to warm your heart and soul ❤❄️ Only four more performances of this merry and bright holiday musical! 
📷: @ekrwcreative 
.
.
.
#pittsfield #lovepittsfield #holiday #christmas #whitechristmas #intheberkshires #BTG2021 #linkinbio
61 0
We love a piano ❤️🎹
📷: @ekrwcreative 
.
.
.
#linkinbio #whitechristmas #intheberkshires #christmas #lovepittsfield #BTG2021
96 1
The new year means new shows at the Colonial!  Check out this incredible lineup of national performing acts, local and regional bands and the return of our ever popular youth production! 🌟
28 0
Follow Us