In the many ways the story of Jesus Christ has been told on stage, “Godspell” is unique in focusing on his teachings rather than the events of his life. As such, it feels like a dynamic grade school Religion class, preachy but also entertaining. Dr. Anton Juan directs this local production, and it’s quite the experience.
Even before walking in the theater, you have members of the cast, in full make-up and costume, interacting with the audience as themselves but also in character. There’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall, with a smattering of audience participation. Right away, it’s clear that the show wants to be fun. And it is, for the most part.
The show starts off slow, with musical numbers and scenes that don’t seem to tell a linear story. But, that’s just how this Stephen Schwartz musical was created to be. It’s a run-down of Jesus’s most popular parables, set to music and vibrant dancing. The musical picks up considerably just as the choreography (by Dexter Santos) does.
The parables themselves are each told in a unique way. For the story of Lazarus, a stage manager is inexplicably brought in to play the part. The characters in the parable of the Prodigal Son are comically Japanese. The Samaritan is played by a taho vendor, and so on. Add to that, the many ad libs and improv the cast do to get the audiences to laugh. And we do, but not out of any profound reason, which is ironic considering the show is all about profundity.
In the second act towards the end, the momentum slows down drastically. Rather than feeling any empathy for what Jesus has endured, the play-by-play of his suffering has about the same charisma and impact as your typical Sunday mass.
Mercifully, this production never comes across as a parody, despite all the kitsch and cutesy antics. It’s a credit to Jef Flores’s serene and even radiant disposition as he plays Jesus with a gentleness that is earnest. OJ Mariano, for his part playing multiple roles of the opposing side (prominently as Judas later on), performs his roles with clear anguish and drama. Both help anchor the very serious story of Jesus’s life, portraying their roles with appropriate reverence.
It’s an ensemble piece, which might be the only way to go when you’ve achieved a casting coup that includes Ms. Menchu Launchego-Yulo, and other theater stalwarts like Caisa Borromeo, Red Concepcion, Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, and Topper Fabregas. Most of the players are given scenes where they are primarily featured. Maronne Cruz, especially, showcases her genre-crossing performance chops from rap to a folksy number complete with a ukulele. The cast perform with such infectious energy that you dance and clap and participate, even if you’re not entirely sure of what’s going on.
The stage is dramatically lit (by John Batalla) and transformed (by Otto Hernandez) into a dumpsite. As the story goes along, why they’re in squalor is never addressed. In fact, other than wearing garbage and living in a landfill, the characters seem like your everyday middle class millennials. Their clothes may be made out of sacks and plastic bags, but they’re impeccably styled and speak the jargon of the privileged, talking about Snapchat and making jabs at Donald Trump. The effect is akin to watching a 3-hour long Bubble Gang sketch.
One has to wonder why the artistic team, in order to make the show relatable to Filipino audiences, chose an urban poor setting. Along with this stereotypical depiction of poverty, images of global chaos are projected on a screen in the background. I see the intent of reconciling these modern-day problems with Jesus’s parables, but while the technique is not subtle, its connection to what was happening on stage wasn’t clear.
All that said, it’s still a pretty fun time at the theater. But, if you’re going for a refresher on the teachings of Jesus, or of his life, or even on how it applies to modern global concerns, best wait for your Sunday mass homily for that.
Photos by: Frida Tan