The cast of the Berkshire Theatre Group production of 'Godspell.' Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

THEATER REVIEW: BTG’s ‘Godspell’ a living entity that crawls into your brain and soul

The way this show works is nothing short of genius: talent and genius.

Godspell
By John-Michael Tebelak
Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Choreographed by Gerry McIntyre
Directed by Alan Filderman

“All your wrongs will be addressed.”

I’m going to talk about talent. To be honest, “Godspell” has never been among my favorite shows, so to see it in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that has basically removed my principal joy — theater — from my life is not anticipated as a perfect evening. However, on this occasion, the show has taken on a special meaning and created a spirit of good fellowship in me. There are several reasons for this and I will get to them all before I’m done, but the central point here is the accumulated talent on the special tented stage behind the Colonial Theatre in downtown Pittsfield.

Michael Wartella in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘Godspell.’ Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

What is undeniable is the work done by every one of the 10 actors on the wide, compartmentalized stage (wonderfully designed by Randall Parsons) and the creative talent that gives them their focal identities. Each space matches its occupant, right down to the sexy beanbag chair occupied by Michael Wartella. The angled plexiglass walls on the moveable units help to confine each player in their socially distanced spots, and the show opens with each player confessing his or her history within and without the COVID era. Why they are here is their topic and why they are here this August is the subject of the show. Each one, within their roles, plays out their history and attitude to perfection. That takes talent. Wartella, a Pittsfield native, unable to continue his growing Broadway career, is appreciating all good gifts in this Berkshire world and setting himself on the road to seeing the light of the world on a rural tented stage in a parking lot. It is not what he deserves at this point, but unlike a mere 30,000 out-of-work professional actors, he has a job. He shows us the complexity of knowledge and achievement with his performance.

Brandon Lee, a general understudy in this show, played the part usually played by Zach Williams and he was a standout in this excellent company. His musical numbers were strong, and his comments on the action had clarity and humor. He has the most expressive hands in this group of talents and it was, frankly, a joy and a thrill to watch him present his honest emotional side through his use of them. I hope he gets to play this role again and again. Audiences deserve to see him.

The show has been cast without regard to gender, which is great. All five of them are just wonderful. We all know the story: the last year in the life of Jesus — enough said. It is how these actors deal with him and the story that scores.

Kimberly Immanuel in the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘Godspell.’ Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

Isabel Jordan drives her way through “Day by Day” and leaves a permanent mark on our hearts. Emily Koch does an improved sense of justice on “Bless the Lord.” Najah Hetzberger’s Mother Earth figure is sheer joy celebrating “All good gifts” from God the father. Talent simply jumps out of her expressive body through her jubilant voice. Alex Getlin just opens her heart with “By Your Side” when Jesus saves her from a stoning. Mary Magdalene could not have faced her redemption better than Getlin does it.

The extraordinary Kimberly Immanuel tops the group with every gesture, every word she speaks, every musical number she performs, including a tap-danced “Learn Your Lessons Well.” She even manages a short passage of the almost-lost art of toe-tapping. She brought down the house which was, honestly, not unanticipated. What a company of players!

In the program, two performers bear character names: Judas and Jesus. Judas is played by Tim Jones and Jesus by Nicholas Edwards. Jones is very good, often lurking in his upstage-left box, a sneer on his lips that emerges occasionally but is never intrusive. The two men do an old-fashioned straw hat-and-cane duet in Act 1 that is a delight (choreographed to historic perfection by Gerry McIntyre). In the box next to Jones sits Dan Rosales, who could be the least intrusive player I’ve ever seen until he has his biggest moment in the song “We Beseech Thee,” which simply blew me away. Talk about talent under a rock: Rosales shows us what that actually means.

Nicholas Edwards as Jesus in the Berkshire Theatre Group Production of ‘Godspell.’ Photo: Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware

As Jesus, Nicholas Edwards shines, making every famous Biblical quote he spouts into something very, very new. He sings, he dances, he has a smile that can reach out and hold you. Most often dominating center stage, he is an actor who deserves that place.

Director Alan Filderman, ably assisted by lighting designer Matthew Adelson, has created an entirely new experience called “Godspell.” It is not the show I remembered. It is a living entity that crawls into your brain and your soul. The way this show works is nothing short of genius: talent and genius. Talent brightens a COVID world and turns it into a hopeful place.

Live theater is back, folks, and it feels so good — “All good gifts” indeed. Godspell 2020: It’s here and it’s ours.

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Godspell plays at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Sunday, Sept. 20. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, call the box office at (413) 997-4444 or go to www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.