Godspell Through August 17, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., $20. Onyx Theatre, 953 E. Sahara Ave., 723-7225.
Born from a student’s master’s thesis in 1970, Godspell uses a series of theatrical sketches to tell the story of Jesus. Since its debut, pop-culture references and modern music have become de rigeur portions of modern Christian services, which means that modern productions of the show—like Poor Richard’s Players’ at the Onyx Theatre—have to work harder to find the same exciting energy introduced by the original production.
If the modes of the show may be threadbare now, the score still shines, and this production is strongest when its cast joins together in song. The harmonies were exquisite, with Karalyn Clark’s musical direction shining through. But too many weaknesses were evident when cast members soloed or had to take the lead on songs. Some didn’t have the breath to complete their phrasings (including Clark in “All for the Best”) or the power to belt the way they wanted (Audrei-Kairen Kotaska in “Learn Your Lessons Well”), and Alanna Gallo had a hard time staying in tune during “We Beseech Thee.” But the arrangements and vocals for the group numbers were beautiful. Some new twists to the songs included having Thomas Chrastka sing “Turn Back, O Man” (usually a vampy burlesque number) and “On the Willows.” Accompanying himself on guitar, Chrastka gave them both a haunting indie-rock poet feel, even if he stumbled with his fingerings in “Willows.”
The parable retellings were sprinkled with some truly laugh-out-loud moments (including Ashley Patrice’s brilliant sampling of “Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That” and Kotaska’s great Donald Trump impression), but the play lacked a vitality and sense of newness, staying stuck in ’70s theatre games. As Jesus, Benjamin Loewy was amiable but didn’t convey a dynamism or charisma necessary for such a compelling leader. Clark was heartbreaking as Judas, tortured by her own actions and conveying a torrent of very real grief, but while it was executed well, this choice actually ended up distracting from the main narrative. Director Lysander Abadia and his team worked to find that special something to make this musical as fresh and relevant as it used to be, but they didn’t quite get there.