Pacific Theatre's Godspell doesn't speak for itself

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      Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak. Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. Presented by Pacific Theatre and Trinity Western University. At Pacific Theatre on Wednesday, June 2. Continues until July 3

      Director Sarah Rodgers had a very big idea for this production of Godspell. Unfortunately, it is also a very bad idea. Rodgers sets this coproduction from Pacific Theatre and Trinity Western University in the world of television’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. The musical and the TV show come from the same period—Godspell opened off-Broadway in 1971, and Laugh-In ran from 1968 to 1973—but their sensibilities are at odds with one another. Godspell is earnest and Laugh-In is absurd. I think the dramatic arc in this interpretation is supposed to involve Laugh-In’s cast moving from superficiality to faith, but who wants to see the TV show’s crazy characters brought to heel by Christ’s threats of burning in hellfire?

      The musical contains some memorable songs, including “Prepare Ye”, “Day by Day”, and “Turn Back, O Man”. The text between the musical numbers consists mostly of parables. Rodgers gums up Godspell’s spare theatricality by inserting all sorts of material from Laugh-In. Almost none of it works. A Bible story about a man who hoards his wealth and then dies suddenly is delivered by an actor impersonating Lily Tomlin’s child character Edith Ann. And Edith Ann adds a bunch of text about making a sandwich. This theatrical choice screams for attention, declaring its own cleverness, but the result is a confusing and unfunny mess. The tacked-on party sequences, in which Laugh-In characters deliver one-liners in quick freeze-frames while dancing, are dead on arrival. Rowan and Martin deliver a great bit in which they pretend to be spies, but all of this unnecessary material makes the 77-minute first act feel interminable.

      Act 2 improves considerably. That’s because the Laugh-In conceit falls away almost completely. The actors are still dressed as the show’s stars, but the personas have mostly disappeared. In the moving Last Supper scene, I didn’t see Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, and Arte Johnson; I saw a bunch of student performers from Trinity Western University, a Christian institution, getting worked up because they were imagining the death of their saviour.

      Some of these young actors impress. I particularly enjoyed Kyla Ferrier’s work as Ruth Buzzi’s hair-netted character Gladys, and as Tiny Tim. Ferrier taps into the essence of these figures as well as mastering their external behaviour. Tim Bratton sings well and makes a reasonably humble Jesus. John Voth catches a good portion of Dick Martin’s goofy charm, and “On the Willows”, his melancholy second-act duet with Joel Stephanson’s Dan Martin, is a musical highlight. Vocally, this isn’t a terrifically strong mounting, but under Nelson Boschman’s direction, the four-piece band is tight.

      If only Rodgers had let this sweet, simple musical speak for itself.