Heavenly voices: Chris Alonzo, Joey Del Buono, Katina Sanchez, Erin Iwanusa, Jim Burns, Maria Mendes, Robert Zwaschka and Shelley Osterberger in Brooklyn Family Theatre's production of "Godspell."
Matt Herrlett

Historians tell us that drama began as
ritual related to religious belief. So it is entirely fitting
that the Brooklyn Family Theatre should be housed in and sponsored
by a Brooklyn church, the Church of Gethsemane in Park Slope.
But just as appropriate is the company’s inaugural production,
"Godspell: A Musical Based on the Gospel According to St.

First produced at the Cafe La MaMa, the play opened at the Cherry
Lane Theatre on May 17, 1971 and ran for 2,124 performances.
It ran an additional 527 performances on Broadway, during a season
that also included two other productions with Biblical roots:
"Two by Two," the story of Noah and "Jesus Christ
Superstar," a rock ’n’ roll extravaganza.

The original production, conceived and directed by John-Michael
Tebelak with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, opened with
a cast of recent college graduates. In fact, Tebelak himself
had just graduated from college, and the play certainly reflects
much of his youthful enthusiasm. "Godspell" provided
audiences with a modern interpretation of Christianity and portrayed
Jesus as a clown preaching to flower children (those actors also
performed other main roles) with popular, upbeat music.

Brooklyn Family Theatre’s production, directed by Park Slope
resident Phill Greenland, has been largely stripped of its ’70s
aura. Jesus (Chris Alonzo) is a regular guy wearing jeans and
a T-shirt. His followers are also dressed casually but not outlandishly.
They do not distribute flowers, but blow bubbles and decorate
the stage with paper cutouts of the sun, moon and stars.

The young troupe, ages 16-32, wields flashlights and jumps on
the pews among the audience. The actors also shove each other,
shout, make funny faces, pantomime and play games. Although this
is clearly an ensemble piece, each actor manages to stand out
as an individual, immensely talented performer. Every bit as
young as the original cast, they manage to appear both seasoned
and spontaneous.

Audiences will find most of Jesus’ best-known parables and proverbs
in "Godspell" – the "lilies of the field,"
the "prodigal son," "render unto Caesar ,"
and "let he who is without sin ," to name just a few.
But the words are not much more than poetic pauses between the
joyous songs. Fortunately, the pauses are never too long.

There are some really fine voices in the "Godspell"
cast. Maria Mendes, with her sexy alto, belts out the bluesy
"Learn Your Lessons Well" and the sultry "Turn
Back, O Man." Erin Twansa gives a moving rendition of the
ballad "By My Side." Shelley Osterberger tenderly sings
the classic "Day By Day." And Alonzo, Jim Burns and
the entire cast give "All for the Best" a rollicking
vaudevillian twist that may start hands clapping and toes tapping.

Definitely worth mentioning is the musical accompaniment – Greenland
on piano, Chuck Iwanusa on guitar and bass and Matthew Iwanusa
on drums.

There’s not much scenery in "Godspell" – just a ladder
holding a few colorful plastic sheets, which the cast waves and
wraps around themselves to great effect. And of course there’s
the church itself – with its vaulted ceilings and stained-glass
windows – that sets the stage far better than any set designer
could ever dream of doing.

If "Godspell" has always been a favorite among young
performers and young audiences, it’s not surprising. The musical,
with its new-age rendering of ancient words demands an unsophisticated
view of life.

For non-Christians, "Godspell" may seem uncomfortably
like a revival meeting, and Christians may not appreciate the
simplistic, pop interpretation of sacred texts. But "Godspell"
succeeds at something many a preacher longs for – it makes religion
vibrant and compelling, and even more importantly, a lot of fun.

Brooklyn Family Theatre plans to produce a repertoire that includes
dramas, musicals and children’s theater. If "Godspell"
is any indication of what’s to come, the company should be a
formidable presence in Brooklyn. They just may give older theater
groups a run for their money – and win!


"Godspell: A Musical Based on
the Gospel According to St. Matthew" plays through May 5,
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 4 pm. Admission
is $12. The Church of Gethsemane is located at 1012 Eighth Ave.
at 10th Street in Park Slope. For reservations, call (718) 670-7205.

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