When it comes to church, my dad always had a saying: "The mind can absorbeth what the seat can endureth." Now, dear old dad was more often than not referring to long-winded sermons, but his observation also proves true with musical theater, especially of the Gospel kind.
Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater opened its 25th anniversary season last weekend with "Godspell," the 1971 adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz (Wicked).
The show, which got its start as Tebelak's masters thesis, is definitely a product of the period, a series of Jesus' gospels accompanied by an infectious score covering a variety of musical styles from pop to folk, gospel and vaudeville, all sung by a troupe of hippies cum apostles.
In this incarnation, Director David Arisco takes the liberty of updating the show, adding references to Lindsay Lohan, Donald Trump, the Kardashians and even Facebook to the parable skits, as well as rap and hip-hop rhythms. But, like so many period shows that seem quaint today-"Hair" comes to mind-the updates confuse the context of the original work.
Costume designer Ellis Tillman keeps to the hippie theme with colorful outfits that undoubtedly were sourced at the local Goodwill store, but Gene Seyfer's multi-tiered, post-apocalyptic cityscape - or is it present day Detroit? - seems a bit too stark, even though Arisco manages to utilize every inch throughout the show.
Despite the incongruence, Schwartz's score comes through. One by one, the ensemble cast, led by Josh Canfield as Jesus and Nick Duckart as John the Baptist/Judas, each get a turn to shine, thanks to the able direction of David Nagy.
Henry Gainza offered one of the most poignant moments of the show with a heartfelt "All Good Things," while Heather Kopp gave a fresh interpretation of the familiar "Day by Day." Kareema Khouri and Cindy Pearce alternately belted out gospel licks and Clay Cartland excelled at the slapstick humor that has made him a favorite in South Florida theater circles.
Nick Duckart is one of the most talented young actors in the region and he again offers a memorable performance in the dual roles of John the Baptist and later, Judas. Josh Canfield makes a return to Actors' Playhouse after starring in last year's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Canfield has a crystal clear tenor voice and portrays Jesus in an unassuming way. He can carry the show-he must-but I found myself wondering throughout how Duckart might have portrayed Jesus, perhaps with a little more conviction, even gravitas.
In any case, many subtle dramatic developments get lost in the tiring slapstick approach Arisco utilizes in the monotonous parable segments.
The sound system at the Miracle Theater is a frequent target for critics and, despite seeming improvement, the Sunday matinee performance was still marred by frequent feedback and balance issues between the singers and offstage orchestra.
"Godspell" is playing through Nov. 4 at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables) Visit www.ActorsPlayhouse.org or call 305-441-4181 for tickets. $15-$50.