In lieu of a full review, here is a promotional video I created for Dare 2 Defy’s Children of Eden, which runs for only three performances this weekend in Dayton, Ohio. I attended the dress rehearsal and found the score catchy, the choreography highly inventive, and the cast of nearly fifty full of energy. I was worried that this would be somewhat like Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, but it wasn’t in the slightest. Though the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and his ark are told, they are treated more like literature than a Bible lesson, making the subject matter highly accessible to any audience, be they believer or Atheist. *** 1/2 out of ****
I first saw Godspell twenty years ago; I was in high school in Ashland, KY, and it was a community college production so awful that I was turned off from seeing any theatre for years. The lyrics were drowned out by the music, the actors ran through the aisles of the auditorium in an effort to engage the audience, and I couldn’t follow what was going on at all. Ever since then, even though I now love musical theatre and particularly the works of Stephen Schwartz, the mention of Godspell is enough to make me groan. All of this leads me to Dare to Defy Productions and their staging of this show now running in Dayton, and I figured it was time to give it another chance.
Godspell premiered off-Broadway in 1971, ran five years, then transferred to Broadway and ran well over another year. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by John Michael Tebelak, the show is comprised of Bible stories from the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, each with some lesson to impart as guided by Jesus to his flock of hippies (depending on the production). The show spawned an average film adaptation in 1973 and a hit single (“Day by Day”), and it has gone on to be a popular property in community theatres across the country. It is predated chronologically ever so slightly by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, another rock/Broadway interpretation of The Bible with a score close to my heart. Is it possible to like both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar? If I were to pick one, it’s definitely the latter, no question. Still, Dare to Defy’s production has some very good qualities for fans of Godspell.
Director Becki Norgaard guides a lively, diverse, and vocally gifted cast around the intimate performing space of the Mathile Theatre, assisted by a terrific band and sound design. If there was ever a production that could help me see more of the joy within Godspell, this is it. The show moves quickly, running just around two hours with an intermission, and there are humorous moments when the cast engages some audience members in the action. I’m not quite sure why M&M’s and wine are served at the last supper, but why not? There is a funky vibe to this production that is welcoming, even if it doesn’t make me a believer in the material.
So charismatic and honest is Bobby Mitchum as Jesus that I didn’t recognize him from his role as Cinderella’s Prince in Dare to Defy’s Into the Woods just last month! It’s not that he looked so completely different or anything (though he is one of those rare guys that can pull off wearing white jeans); it’s that his energy is transformative, a far cry from the haughty and spoiled part he played in the other show. The fact that Mr. Mitchum is so good in both quite different roles goes to demonstrate his versatility.
Kudos are also due to Tia Seay as a member of the ensemble, careful to blend in through much of the first act before pulverizing everyone with her solo; then Ms. Seay gracefully steps aside to make sure her cast mates each get their moments to shine as well. Grant Warden in the ensemble also stood out to me in “Light of the World,” his big act one closing number. Mr. Warden is open to being as goofy and unabashedly joyous as the song requires, not letting his matinee idol looks get in the way.
Did this production revise my opinion of Godspell? Well, no, it didn’t, even though the cast is energetic and the plot more discernible to me now than it was on my last experience with the show. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t like the music or the play, but that’s no fault of the talented performers in this production (I can’t say the same of the one I saw in high school). There is a preachy component in the material that doesn’t work for me, but that is the same element that the friend I attended this production with appreciated and enjoyed. She also saw and liked the 2011 Broadway revival. The audience was really into Dare to Defy’s production, and they were quick to give a standing ovation as soon as the lights came on. I can recognize that this is a beloved musical and that this production has a talented cast, but Godspell just isn’t for me.
If you like the play and music: *** out of ****
If, like me, you don’t like the play or music: ** out of ****
Godspell continues through to October 24th in the Mathile Theatre at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center located on West 2nd Street in downtown Dayton (about an hour outside of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/godspell-flyer/
I understand why Into the Woods has become a modern classic. Since its premiere on Broadway in 1987, Into the Woods has been recorded for television broadcast, toured, had several subsequent major productions in London and New York, been licensed for production by tens of thousands of high schools and community theatres, and was finally transformed into a star-filled 2014 feature film starring Meryl Streep. The show has a terrific score with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, an unpredictable but intriguing book by James Lapine, and requires a large cast of talented performers to pull off; Dare to Defy Productions presents their Into the Woods for just one weekend at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, paying justice to the material with distinct qualities that make it worth seeing even if one has already seen dozens of productions of the show in the past.
Into the Woods tells of famous storybook and fairy tale characters inhabiting a land together and how their lives change in strange and new ways once their paths cross. There is a witch, a baker and his wife, Jack and his beanstalk, Cinderella and her family, Rapunzel, and Little Red Ridinghood; they all have desires and lives that are derailed by wolves, giants, and circumstances involving death and infidelity. Even though the story meanders quite a bit in the second act and comes off as a little preachy (must so many songs in one show have some kind of moral message?), the score includes such classics as “Children Will Listen,” “Stay With Me,” “No One is Alone,” “Last Midnight,” and “Giants in the Sky,” all songs forever to be performed in auditions by budding performers. This production is fortunate to have John Benjamin directing and conducting a talented team of musicians that bring the score to life with the kind of brisk tempo the material requires.
A notable surprise is the song “Our Little World”; it was written for the London production but is not always performed. It was in the 2002 Broadway revival that I saw with Vanessa Williams as The Witch, but it was not in the film. Though listed in the program erroneously as “Rapunzel,” the song gives The Witch (and especially Rapunzel) another moment to shine and examine the complexities of their relationship. I had forgotten about the song’s existence until it appeared like a gift in this production.
Director Mathys Herbert and set designer Ray Zupp (he also plays The Baker to great effect with a clear voice and good diction) have transformed this play by using the theatre as its own setting, creating a kind of “found theatre” approach by employing so many types of media and backstage equipment in this production. No attempt has been made to recreate the woods in the story, the stage appearing to be a combination of scenic elements from various prior productions with suitcases, trunks and such items as a Victrola all around the set; it all looks more like Follies than Into the Woods, but I liked it. A rolling ladder with a platform at the top represents the tree where Cinderella’s mother is buried; an overhead projector is used to project an image of the wolf on a screen for the baker to slash through and rescue Little Red Ridinghood and her grandmother; animated silhouettes represent a large eye of the female giant to great effect. The mix match of design extends to the characters as well; the stepmother (Amy Askins, as svelte and statuesque as any runway model) is dressed in a sparkling dress as if she walked out of “Real Housewives of New York,” while Cinderella’s father is a puppet that looks a lot like one from Avenue Q, and Milky White is a puppet controlled in plain sight a la War Horse (though curiously without legs, appearing to float on udders). It’s all terribly inventive and fresh, and bravo to Herbert and Zupp in pulling it off, with great assistance via the atmospheric lighting by Sammy Jelinek, puppet builder Danielle Robertson, and costume designer Carolyn McDermott.
The cast is uniformly good, though there were some notable standouts; Natalie Sanders is a wistful and longing Cinderella, with a thrilling voice; Evan Benjamin is a buoyant Jack, with athletic movement akin to an older Billy Elliot and a sweet innocence that is charming; Kelsey Hopkins brings humor to The Baker’s Wife more than I’ve seen before, though when she lets her hair down (literally and figuratively) she is dramatically effecting (her performance of “Maybe They’re Really Magic,” a great song with clever lyrics that was not in the film version, is precise and performed with exactly the right tone); Jackie Darnell has a splendidly operatic voice as Rapunzel, and projects more than just the sad victim as the role is often portrayed; Tori Kocher reinvents Little Red Ridinghood as a physically developed, precocious vixen, loud and fierce; Kocher is a great foil for The Wolf, played by Bobby Mitchum, who is also Cinderella’s Prince, classically handsome and unafraid to poke fun at that fact; and last but not least is Mimi Klipstine as The Witch, wry and enjoyably abrasive, her performance of “Last Midnight” particularly enjoyable.
I can’t say I was a fan of the obtrusive masks worn by The Wolf and The Witch (before her transformation); they were quite stylized and well-executed but covered too much of the performers’ faces and were set off of their heads in a way that cast shadows with the lighting that often hid their mouths. Still, that is a relatively minor criticism in a production so striking and original. It’s a shame that it gets to haunt the classic Victoria Theatre for only three performances, only two left later today at the time of this writing. This Into the Woods dispenses with trying to cater to the kiddies, feeling delightfully more adult though still appropriate for the middle school crowd. Even if you’ve seen it before (and if you’re reading this, you probably have), you really should catch Dare to Defy’s production of Into the Woods before it’s gone.
***/ out of ****
Into the Woods continues through to September 5th in the Victoria Theatre at 138 North Main Street in Dayton (a little over an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/