”Save the People”: GODSPELL at Off Broad Street Players

by David Bradford
Jada Mayo gives a wonderfully engaging performance of "Turn Back, O Man".

Jada Mayo gives a wonderfully engaging performance of “Turn Back, O Man”.

I’m old enough to remember the Sony Walkman. That was in the pre-digital days when we kept our great music on cassette tapes. Every now and then you would be out and about with your Walkman, pop in your favorite tape, only to find out your batteries were running down. Instead of the sweet sounds of the music you loved, you were treated to a slower, lower, lackluster rendition. It left you intensely frustrated!

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with the Off Broad Street Players’ production of GODSPELL, well, the same frustrated feeling described above was present in me throughout the entire production. I have reviewed Off Broad Street Players’ productions before and have always been extremely impressed with the quality of shows, talent, and overall production values they provide. I was thrilled when given the opportunity to review their production of GODSPELL. This show is a particular favorite of mine. It is one I have seen numerous times, been in a couple of times, and directed three times. I know the show inside and out, and I love it! So my expectations were high for the evening.

This production begins with the cast members arriving on stage one at a time. As each arrives, they go through a small piece of business which is meant to establish their character. All of this is done in silence. I am not sure what director Walter Webster is trying to accomplish with this, but it starts the show off at a deadly pace. The audience is left further confused by the placement of the “curtain speech” immediately following the cast arrival instead of prior to.

This rough start can easily be overcome once the show proper begins. However, once the music kicked in the biggest source of my frustration was quickly revealed. I can sum it up in one word, “tempo”.  Every single song of the show is done at a tempo far below any tempo at which I have ever before heard the songs performed. In some cases, the songs feel like they are being performed at nearly half the normal speed. Why? What purpose does that serve?

One theory I have for this is that perhaps the director is placing a musical focus on the show. I will say this, the musical abilities, harmonies, and blending qualities of the cast are outstanding! It is probably the most musically precise performance of GODSPELL that I have ever seen. But, this is a theatrical production and not a concert. The music of GODSPELL is a combination of high-energy numbers, and a handful of quiet, reflective numbers. Performing the high-energy numbers at such slow tempos makes them quite anemic, and the lack of energy then naturally translates into a torturous pace during the dialogue scenes.

If it had just been a lackluster performance by an inexperienced, novice cast, I would have written it off as such and would have “let it go”. But I can’t let it go because it is clear that this is a highly motivated and very talented cast. With the proper tempos, and the corresponding rise in energy, this production could be spectacular. Please, we beseech thee! Speed up the songs! Let this cast loose! The audience deserves to see everything they can get out of this tremendous group of performers.

There are some definite high points in the show. As I mentioned, musically this cast is amazing. You would be hard-pressed to find a weak singer among them. In addition, they seem to know their vocal parts inside and out.

Don Fransko as Jesus leading Ensemble members in Off Broad Street Players' rendition of GODSPELL.

Don Fransko as Jesus leading Ensemble members in Off Broad Street Players’ rendition of GODSPELL.

The role of Jesus is played by Don Fransko. Don has a wonderful voice which he demonstrates early on in “Save the People”. He is also quite obviously a very talented and experienced actor. However, I did not feel like he ever connected with the role. He “acted” it’s quite well, but it never seemed to me that he “felt” it. I strongly encourage him to reach a little deeper and let his actions speak from the heart rather than the script.

The dual role of John the Baptist/Judas is handled quite ably by Dale Santangelo. While Dale is somewhat underwhelming in his performance of “Prepare Ye” his wonderful vocals later on in duets with Jesus in both “All for the Best” and “Beautiful City” more than make up for it.

The rest of the cast works as a well oiled ensemble. But three of the members deserve special recognition. Jada Mayo gives a wonderfully engaging performance of “Turn Back, O Man”. She also provides a good source of energy to the ensemble. Maura Jarve is excellent in both “Bless the Lord” and “By My Side”. She is also an incredibly animated member of the ensemble. Jen Cassidy is equally as animated and is a great choice for “Learn Your Lessons Well”. An honorable mention also needs to go to Jason D Smith for nailing the high falsetto note in “We Beseech Thee”.

The Off Broad Street Players’ production of GODSPELL holds a tremendous amount of promise. Director Walter Webster just needs to change the batteries in the Walkman. Speeding up tempos and energizing the cast will make the show shine!

The running time for the show is two and half hours and is rated G.

GODSPELL runs THIS WEEKEND ONLY, March 22 -23 at 8pm, March 24 at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets are $20 (+ handling fee) for all performances. See the Off Broad Street Players website for further details.

Book by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Walter Webster
Assistant Direction by Patty Davis
Choreography by John T. Stephan
March 22 – 24, 2013
Levoy Theatre
126 – 130 N. High St.
Millville, NJ 08332

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