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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. Matthew."

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.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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