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The Bible in burlesque

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Theater Review
Godspell
Presented by MusicArtes
Directed by Anton Juan
May 6-21
Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Ayala Ave. corner
Gil Puyat Ave., Makati City

By Sujata S. Mukhi

Growing up in Malate, sandwiched between two edifice complexes of Catholic education, it seemed inevitable, and even quite natural that I spent many Saturday afternoons with my siblings re-enacting the only two existing religious musicals of the time: Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, both released as films in 1973. I was diehard JCS: you could not take away my intense, brooding, slightly wall-eyed Ted Neeley, who played JC, from my night time reveries of being his Mary Magdalene in the desert. My sister, on the other hand, liked the light hearted musicality of Godspell, the clown persona of Jesus alias Victor Garber — yes Alias’ Victor Garber! — that made spiritual teachings a performance. To this day, the six-line song “Day by Day” (which actually is five sentences because of a repeated line) is the only song she knows the full lyrics to. My brother on the other hand would not be caught dead with a shawl around his head to play Mary Magdalene (or maybe he did, once? A pioneer of cross-gender casting?), and took on JCS’ JC, sometimes Pontius Pilate, and many times the heinous Roman soldier crucifying anything and anyone in sight: my mom’s arm laid on the back of a sofa; my dad’s feet on the floor; a cat lying on its back, too hot to protest with the accompanying sound effect of “tak tak tak” as its paws were “nailed” to the bed. (Note please before the slacktivists descend that no human nor animals were ever harmed in that ’70s pasyon.)

The Bible in burlesque

But it was a constant tug of war, which to re-enact on Saturdays? The plotless, funny Godspell or the harrowing JCS? The Chaplin-esque Jesus or the rockstar Christ? The ragtag team of hippies skipping through Manhattan, or the unshaven, sweaty apostles in rags pouting in the desert? And I couldn’t get over the confusion of how Godspell’s John the Baptist, played by the late great David Haskell, transformed into Judas in New York.

I had been fixated on Godspell’s meandering, but well appreciated the gloriously lilting, exultant music, and hymnal lyric. Heck, it pretty much would have prepared me the way of the Christian Lord if it wasn’t for the little fact that I was being raised as a Hindu tween. But having seen for the first time a stage production of Godspell just last week, I realized that the musical was a revue wide open to interpretation, of which we had tons in our Malate House of Performing Arts. The creativity of interpretation would only be limited by a crisis of imagination.

Produced by MusicArtes, this Godspell rerun (it was first staged last year) is eager and vigorous. It’s directed by my first ever stage director (that was not from my university Drama Guild or a high school musical or related to me by blood) in the days when I was an actor for a blip in time. Known more for gravitas in his choice of work, rather than the levity of spiritual vaudeville, director Anton Juan in his program notes asserts that he wanted to “re-do this musical in more profound connection to the mission of social justice… the mission of Christianity.” What that seemed to mean was a series of images flashed in the background showing words like “We are not Terrorists” or visages of Vicki Belo, Madonna, and Trump as the character of Jesus shares parables of wayward rich men, prodigal sons, and good Samaritans.

So yes, Godspell is a revue of parables, the Bible in burlesque (the non risqué definition), with a cast of characters that traipse and prance moral lessons, revolving around and performing for a very charismatic Jesus, persuasively played by Jef Flores as he reprises the role he played in last year’s show. Mr. Flores has been quite busy, with consecutive performances in Care Divas, then The Vibrator Play, and now as the titular lead. I didn’t see him in Care Divas, but I was less shaken and stirred by his take on the amorous artist Leo in The Vibrator Play. His Jesus goes beyond earnest and charming, and it’s to Mr. Flores’s credit that he doesn’t play up his good looks, nor fall in love with the sound of his own voice (and resonant it is!) unlike some of the other cast members. By this I mean there is a sincerity to his rendition that doesn’t seek to impress the audience nor his cast of cast-off disciples. He does falter in the last third, loses his breath a little, and the shift from impassioned troupe leader to the passion of Jesus’ suffering is weak.

The joy of Godspell for theater groups, amateur and otherwise, is that it is so malleable and fertile for improvisation. Just like the universal lessons in the parables, the play can be set anywhere, in any point of time, as expensive a spectacle as you want it to be, or as bare bones as having a public park as your stage, or, as the movie did, the city of New York, wearing street clothes and found objects. This production effectively constructed a junk yard with recycled materials as a set, with the band cleverly hidden behind a hill of refuse. I just wished the cast utilized the set levels more, and that Dexter Santos’s energetic choreography would fill up the corners and crevices.

Which brings me to point I don’t want to pick, but feel I have to. I don’t know how others have staged this, but I’m a little bothered at why most of the numbers are sung to the audience. Then I ask myself, isn’t it that kind of show? Even lyricist Stephen Schwartz’ Pippin constantly broke the fourth wall, and I really have no issue with making the audience a part of the act, with accompanying eye wink. I just feel that some of the effect of a lovely song like Topper Fabregas’ “All Good Gifts” gets lost when it’s so performative, and many times a song of praise is addressed to God sitting in the balcony section, with mannerisms of devotion rather than of being devoted. It’s all face forward with matching look of yearning. I’m just thankful that Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s “By My Side” is so full of thirst for spirit, so not showy, so directed to the Lord her character seeks to serve. As is Mr. Flores’s rendition of “Beautiful City,” a song not in the original stage play but written for the film, and a more poignant version used in later stage productions. Caisa Borromeo, fresh from her paroxysmal performance in The Vibrator Play, is a stand out Ensemble player, as is the naughty Maronne Cruz. Myke Salomon as John the Baptist/Judas (who interestingly alternated with Mr. Flores the role of the brooding Palestinian lover in Care Divas) cuts the Tower of Babel with a resounding “Prepare Ye,” and gamely rallies the crowd. But as with the film, and it’s probably then embedded in the book, the transition from John the Baptist to Judas is a little hazy.

I didn’t realize that being a triple threat was already passé, as many of these actors could not just dance, sing, and act, but play instruments and juggle too!

The background visuals didn’t enhance the parables, and were distractions from the stage action. Let’s move on from using Trump as a scapegoat when there are real flesh-and-blood examples right here on home terrain of materialism and corruption. And for whatever reasons the images of Bello and Madonna were used, a little unfairly I feel (a stage version of virtual bullying?), more symbolic images could have been used. Or better yet, just scrap the device altogether. As with the rather archaic stereotyping of Japanese accents and mannerisms in the parable of the prodigal son. The production can assert the universality of each parable by setting it in different cultural milieu, but the play-for-laughs caricatures can be done away with not because of droll notions of political correctness but because it’s just dated.

At the end of it all, it was an uplifting, soaring production. I’m still a JCS loyalist at heart, but Godspell is at its core everyman’s devotional.

Tickets are available through TicketWorld (891-9999 or www.ticketworld.com.ph) and at MusicArtes (895-8098, 519-3603 or musicartes.manila@gmail.com).

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