Review by J. A. Di Bello
SOUTH FALLSBURG, NY (July 13, 2015) – In the center of an area of Sullivan County once affectionately known as the Borscht Belt, there is a stirring sense of exhilaration in and around the streets of the hamlet known as South Fallsburg. As common place as it may seem to some, the presence of a benevolent, yet roving Rabbi in and around the Rivoli Theatre on Main street is causing a noticeable stir in this sometimes tranquil mountain village.
At the home of the Sullivan County Dramatic Workshop (SCDW), The Rivoli Theatre, there’s a rousing revival of the popular (1971) off Broadway musical Godspell. Interestingly, the play was written in 1970, by John-Michael Tebelak, as a thesis in the master’s degree program at Carnegie, Mellom University. Since that time it has continued to grow in popularity and significance. The reasons for such unprecedented growth are clearly evident at the Rivoli Theatre, as the talented cast and crew from SCDW, under the direction of an imaginative and stage savvy, Stephanie Watson have vividly revived and captured what has become a classic snippet of American musical theatre.
Godspell is the Gospel. It is, for the greater part any way, a presentation of the parables found in the Gospel of Saint Mathew, portraying Jesus as the benevolent, roving Rabbi as He accumulates followers and encounters memorable characters from the New Testament, notably John the Baptist and of course Judas. The moral confrontations conveyed by Jesus and reflected in the various parables lend themselves to various musical and acting interpretations. The versatility of the play itself is one of its dominate characteristics; it allows an insightful director to utilize an ensemble’s existing musical strengths and acting styles to the fullest.
To this end, SCDW is blessed with numerous talented and memorable vocalists and actors. Standing apart is the well-known Shawn Balley, as Jesus. His vocal range, poise of delivery and succinct articulation place him clearly in the role of a leader. In this case the role of a spiritual leader. Not to be upstaged, however, is the Workshop’s incredible sophomore thespian, Mick Wheaton, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Doubling as John the Baptist and Judas, Mick’s talents extend beyond his admirable skills as an actor to include classic song and dance. In Act One, Shawn and Mick team up to deliver a Vaudevillian style hat and cane dance routine “All for the Best.” It is a near show stopper!
The well-known set designer, Harold Tighe has assembled a collection of strictly urban props, thoughtfully reflecting the setting, as a period piece, a period complete with hippie flowers, a dominating chain link fence (that later serves as an instrument of Crucifixion) and graffiti that reminds viewers that peace and love will save the world.
Further complementing the male vocalists praised above is a collection of talented, multitalented female actors. Grace Strauss’ delivery of the well-known “Day by Day” in the first act is especially effective. Kali Seastrand, believe it or not, a rookie at the SCDW, represents a faithful follower of Jesus as she lets one an all know with her emotional interpretation of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”
Further complementing the show’s collection of vocalists are Amber Schmidt, “Turn Back O Man,” and Jessica Watson, an experienced actor with flair. The audience expects to see more of Jessica.
There are others, of course, as all members of the company excel at their individual assignments. The orchestra or pit band deserves special congratulatory laurels, too. As Musical Director and Conductor, Lauren Bernard is exemplary as is her accompanist, Greg Michalak.
As stated, the off Broadway production of Godspell was originally produced in 1971, and in the strict, unyielding minds of several religious purists, the original production, though successful in terms of musical theatre and uncomplicated entertainment, did not reach its full potential. Although it represented quite artfully the end of Jesus’ ministry, the Crucifixion, some noted. It left others asking, “What about the Resurrection?” In the SCDW production, there is an additional scene, following the death of Jesus. It involves a not so celebratory gathering of the apostles about an apparent “Living Christ.”
Regardless of the interpretation or stance taken, the question is spiritually moot. With this production at the Rivoli in South Fallsburg, Godspell is perhaps one of the most frequently revived of the popular Broadway successes. It is repeatedly performed by Boy Scout troops, high schools, colleges, equity theatres and community theaters, including this production of the Sullivan County Arts Council. Surely skeptics and believers alike will recognize the Resurrection in the numerous revivals of Godspell as truly symbolic and most theatrical.
The “Resurrection” of Godspell is the current and exceptional production of the Sullivan County Dramatic Workshop. As a whole it is intelligently and thoughtfully presented. With the exception of sound system glitches and the inexcusable act of singing into the wings, it is an enjoyable theatrical experience.
As a creative and most worthy event, tickets are available for inspiration and edification at the Rivoli Theatre in South Fallsburg, through Sunday July 19th. Call the box office, 845-436-5336; or purchase seating online at http://www.scdw.net