Thursday, March 6, 2003

Army Community Theatre's "Godspell" stars Chris Veatch, front right, as Jesus, and Elitei Tatafu Jr., second from front at left, as John the Baptist and Judas.

Talented ACT performers
enrich heavenly ‘Godspell’

"Godspell": Presented by Army Community Theatre at Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 15. Tickets are $14 to $17 for adults and $8 to $10 for children. Call 438-4480 or 438-5230. Note: Civilians are welcome with photo ID.

Review by John Berger

"Godspell" is a much brighter -- and, for Christians, a more palatable -- look at Jesus and his teachings than "Jesus Christ Superstar," which was also a hit in New York in the early 1970s. "JCS" posed questions many Christians find offensive: Was Jesus of Nazareth really the supernatural Son of God who died for our sins, or merely a well-intentioned Jewish carpenter who believed he was the Messiah? And if the prophesies required that Jesus be executed in order to redeem mankind, then wasn't Judas Iscariot doing God's will by betraying Jesus?

Army Community Theatre's current production of "Godspell" is a consistently entertaining and well-paced revival of the lighthearted musical version of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. A couple of questionable moments do little damage to the show's charm.

"Godspell" is a straightforward presentation of Christ's best-known parables interspersed with original songs, and can now be seen as the precursor of the Christian musical programs that are staple fare in many trendy, youth-oriented church services today.

ACT's "Godspell" finds Chris Veatch (Chris) and Elitei Tatafu Jr. (Elitei) leading a uniformly talented cast with their performances in the central roles of Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas Iscariot, respectively. (In "Godspell," the performers' names are used as the characters' names; other cast members are not intended to represent any particular disciple.)

Veatch seems perfectly cast. He's tall, athletic, has a commanding stage presence as Jesus and pulls off a couple of character impressions. Tatafu is a fine second player in the two other major roles.

Director-choreographer Brad Powell distinguishes himself as long as he sticks to the original material. Pacing and staging could hardly be better. The skits that dramatize Christ's teaching are entertaining as well as spiritually uplifting, and the musical numbers, most of which spotlight a secondary member of the ensemble, reinforce the message without becoming filler. There's enough lighthearted song and dance here to entertain even folks normally uncomfortable with Christ's message.

Jenny Kimura stands out as the featured singer on "Day by Day," Diana Mills earns her lead spot in "Learn Your Lessons Well," Jay Flores adds another fine showcase performance with "All Good Gifts," and Veatch and Tatafu are the stars featured in "All for the Best."

"GODSPELL" PURISTS will find a cast of 12 instead of 10, and Powell downplays the clown aspect of the original production. No one wears elaborate clown makeup or clownlike costumes, and Jesus adds only a single small mark to the faces of his disciples. The costumes are contemporary, and the combination of costumes and performances create the mood of a television show aimed at elementary school-age children.

Many in the opening-night audience last Thursday failed to catch many of the cultural references or recognize character impressions -- Mae West, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Mr. T, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Durante, Howard Cosell -- sprinkled throughout.

Tom Giza's simple but substantial inner-city set is one of his best creations in recent memory, and few shows staged by any of Honolulu's community theater groups in recent years have been embellished visually to greater dramatic effect than what John Parkinson (lighting design) achieves here.

Sound quality -- a problem in many otherwise serviceable ACT productions -- is the best since its 2001 "South Pacific" production. Rick Jackson (sound design) maintains perfect balance between performers' microphones and musical director Lina Jeong Doo's small but effective chestra. There was only one noticeable mike problem on opening night.

The decision to add material on the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center is questionable. The production opened with attack footage, and broke near the end for a dramatic reading honoring the victims. Some will applaud this patriotic gesture as America prepares to attack Iraq, but Jesus' teachings were never about revenge or paying allegiance to earthly rulers, and the add-on material takes "Godspell" far outside the parameters set by playwright John- Michael Tebelak and composer Stephen Schwartz.

The deed was well intended, but what would Jesus say?

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