Woody Allen used to tell a story about a bullet his mother gave him. He carried the bullet in his breast pocket everywhere he went. One day, as he was walking the streets of New York, somebody hurled a Bible out of a high-rise building, hitting him right in the chest. "If not for the bullet," Allen would conclude, "that Bible would have gone straight through my heart."
The opening of Upstart Performing Ensemble's production of Godspell recalls Allen a bit, as a half-dozen homeless characters are pelted with Bibles from an offstage, unseen source. Unlike Allen, however, these characters have no bullet to protect them, and they are vulnerable to the good news lessons scribbled down from God's lips to Matthew's ears.
The characters devour the words of the Bible, reading passages in a cacophony of babble before Garrett Brooks takes the stage as John the Baptist, singing "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." Although the song usually culminates in an energetic anthem of reawakening, setting the tone for the rock musical, director Tony Babin holds in the reins on this version, keeping the song a cappella, and, by doing so, creating one of the show's best scenes.
It's mostly downhill from there from a musical perspective. The cast is uneven in delivering their solos, but the real handicap comes in the canned musical accompaniment that keeps the play's irresistible score from ever emerging in full voice. The karaoke approach yields synthesized "orchestrations" which are tangled and murky, struggling to be heard from an inadequate sound system, a poor trade-off for the more primitive but palatable solo guitar or piano that would better suit these songs.
Godspell's salvation has always been its music. The "story" is a loose highlight reel of Jesus' brief time with his disciples, but most of the dialogue comes in the form of the parables within the story, rarely linking one scene to the next or developing and sustaining a consistent sense of conflict. Drawing on the contemporary traditions of '60s-style street theater that inspired everything from Abbie Hoffman's Yippies to Dave Foreman's Earth First! movement, the play relishes its disconnected approach to narration, confident the music is strong enough to carry the show.
Brooks has some stellar moments in the double role of John the Baptist and Judas, whose emerging dissatisfaction is subtly developed throughout the show. However, his struggles with the challenging tempos and tongue-tangling lyrics of the show-stopper "All for the Best" rob the number of most of its fun. Ricardo Vila-Roger is surprisingly staid in the unusually clean-cut and straight-laced role of Jesus, especially given the play's neglected genesis as a celebration of the spirit of the original counterculture.
Dawn Rohde is the most consistently strong performer, staying rooted in the moments onstage and singling one of the play's signature songs, "Day by Day." But even with confident vocals from Rohde or Vila-Roger on "God Save the People," the musical numbers are further stilted by the lack of choreography. For most of the play, the most intricate dance moves are lining up all seven cast members and having them bop in place.
Things get more complex when the cast walks in a circle while clapping hands at one point, and there are one or two moments in the second act when singing, acting and story movement are all active at once, most notably in Erika Zaccaria's emotional "By My Side." Zaccaria uses the music as a key to unlock the story, and the uniqueness of her approach is highlighted when Josh Britton joins her in the duet, apparently unsure of who he is singing to, what he is saying or why. Babin demonstrates the potential to use choreography for comic effect in "We Beseech Thee" when the cast breaks into a Riverdance moment, but it is too little too late.