Plaisant’s Godspell enthralls audiences as Baruch’s 3rd musical

From April 25-29, the Baruch theater community has put together a production of the 1971 musical Godspell. It is Baruch's third time performing a musical, following Rent and The Last Five Years, and the idea of presenting this work to the community was rather a bold one. Godspell is a musical with a book by John-Michael Tebelak and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. It is based on the Bible, specifically the Gospel of Saint Matthew. This work tells the story of Jesus Christ and his teachings in a series of parables, intersected by clever vignettes and an eclectic score. Schwartz, a celebrated composer of the hit musicals Pippin and Wicked, is a master of writing songs that are as memorable as they are dramatically conventional.

Godspell is directed by Baruch's own theater professor Dominique Plaisant. Godspell is Plaisant's sophomore directorial work, who debuted in this role during last season's production of Rent at Mason Hall. Between these two works, a lot of progress has been made. If Rent was a hectic production with a messy form and execution, Godspell demonstrates the director’s hidden talents of a diligent visionary. Plaisant is able to bring together a spectacle that is dynamically energetic and focused.

Upon coming to the Bernie West Theater on 23rd Street, audiences enter the world of a cosmopolitan chaos: the set by Gregory Paul consists of classical columns, modern furniture, car tires and other leftovers of a civilized society.

The scenery reflects the pivotal concept the show. Plaisant intends for it to be taking place in a not-so-distant future. It is New York City somewhere in between the 2016 election and an upcoming apocalypse—the time when people are in most need for guidance and faith.

Throughout the show, there are multiple occasions where the not-so-subtle allusions to the current administration and the state of the politics are being referred to.

However, even with the help of meticulously crafted projections, the show fails to fully explore the idea of the post-election world, which is actually for the best.

Godspell is a show already heavy with didactical lessons, so overcomplicating it with political complains would have made the show less wholesome. Plaisant’s Godspell is an uplifting celebration of acceptance, diversity and love—exactly the right rendition that the world needs now.

There is a prominent transition between the two acts. Act One pivots around displaying Jesus’ interactions, as he baptizes the world, freeing it from darkness. The actors are literally stripping off their black heavy coats and reveal colorful clothing.

Dustin Cross’ costumes are a witty mix of ‘70s hippies and modern Williamsburg hipster styles. Act Two is more plot driven, revealing the schism between Jesus and Judas and the consequent set of events.

Although the show is rooted in Christian motifs and ideas, the final product is in fact very secular and universal. Prior to the opening, the projections display quotes by various thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Luther, Albert Einstein and Dalai Lama.

The quotes discuss subjects of art, faith, love and reason, thus establishing that Godspell would not be a form of religious propaganda, but rather a suggestive reflection on humanity as a whole.

When Jesus is preaching established canons of “loving thy neighbor” and “not worshipping money,” these words echo the universal truths that everybody, no matter their background, should live their lives by.

The interesting part of the production is that the actors are playing themselves. For the most part they are nameless and portray multiple people, but each one still has a unique and prominent personality with the actor’s own characteristic traits.

The only character that stays the same throughout the show is the lead. Jesus Christ is portrayed by a marvelous Allegra Kuney, for whom playing male characters is not a novel task. Casting a female as Jesus is not just an unorthodox decision, it is actually brilliant.

It is 2017 and gender is becoming less binary, so having a female Jesus is reflective of the direction this world is headed. Kuney’s performance is worth being praised. She is the heart and soul of the show.

Dressed in virginal white, she belts out her impressive range. She is most touching in the Last Supper scene, as she individually bids farewell to each character prior to her Crucifixion in the finale. Being the show’s catharsis, this final scene is so powerful, it reminds audiences of the brilliance of theater.

The relationship between the characters is admirable. They are all strong individual personalities, yet nobody overshadows one another, creating a perfect balance of talent on stage.

The talent is in surplus. Nicholas Leung proves to be not just a good comic actor, but also a great musician in his guitar solo “All Good Gifts.” Shadye Alvarado is the passion of the show.

Channeling her inner Beyonce, she is confident and sexy. Her energy is radiant and almost palpable, especially when she is giving lap dances to the audience members during “Turn Back, O Man.”

Mike Schultz, with an angelic quality, is adorably goofy. Kaniece Williams is a young Jennifer Holiday, as she is a force to be reckoned with. Joelle Abejar, Jacqueline Aquino and Olivia Renkel all are incredible performers, whose voices make this production sound like a church. Andy Marcello brings pure comedy into his every line, creating an endless energy drive.

Jeffery White is the second-most prominent figure in the show. White is the antagonist—the dark figure who questions everything. In the beginning, he portrays John the Baptist, but halfway through Act One, he symbolically transforms into the traitorous disciple Judas, who leads Jesus to his end. White establishes good chemistry with Kuney, resulting in a fiery show-stopper, “All for The Best.”

Jesus and Judas begin to sing and dance in a Bob Fosse-inspired number as Fred Astaire, Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly and with Ginger Rodgers featured in the background.

The choreographer Danny Burr accomplishes a hard task of balancing the restricting space and limited dancing abilities of the actors with the cheerfulness of the score in a way that looks whimsically effortless.

The routine is contagious, making the audience involuntarily clap and rock in their seats.

In general, Godspell is a true joy. There were minor issues such as poor vocal projection, a couple of awkward high notes and rough transitions.

However, for a third production at a school notoriously known for lacking support of the arts, this production was borderline great and outstanding.

If the upcoming productions continue to raise the bar and create as much enthusiasm, the future of the musical theater at Baruch is as bright as Jesus’ halo.