PITTSFIELD, Mass. — And it came about that the faith of the devoted was sorely tested during the months of famine, and there was a great hunger to believe again. Thus on a hazy night in August, several score of them gathered, with their lower faces hidden as the times demanded, in a parking lot in a small city in the lap of the Berkshire Mountains. They were looking for signs of a resurrection.
It felt right that a tent — with socially distanced folding chairs set up inside — had been assembled behind the Colonial Theater here, as if for a revival meeting. The 1971 musical “Godspell,” which was being reincarnated by the Berkshire Theater Group, is based on parables from the New Testament, and its leading man is named Jesus.
But the creed being promulgated so poignantly here, in a mood that has been described as highly creative caution, wasn’t so much Christianity as the embattled religion of theater, the practice of which has all but disappeared in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The very existence of this version of John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz’s half-century-old slice of story-theater uplift qualifies as something of a miracle. As a general rule, summer stagings of “Godspell,” a favorite of church and school theaters, are as common as crab grass. But this “Godspell” has historic singularity on its side. It is the first professional musical, sanctioned by Actors Equity, to open in this country since the great pandemic lockdowns began.
This means that the show, directed by Alan Filderman and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre, had to follow rules of Talmudic rigor, in compliance with the Massachusetts State Department of Health, to keep its 10-member cast and its 75-member audience safe from infection. Such dictums have been hard enough to enforce in supermarkets.
But in live theater, which relies on communal intimacy? And “Godspell,” which traditionally features sunny young casts cuddling and romping like a herd of puppies, is one of the huggiest musicals ever created.
That’s one of the reasons hardened critics have tended to sneer at “Godspell.” Check out the reviews that have appeared in The New York Times over the years, and you’ll find descriptions like “nauseating” (Clive Barnes, 1971); “recalls nothing so much as ‘The Muppet Show’” (Bruce Weber, 2000), and “relentlessly perky” (Charles Isherwood, 2010).
But historical and social context counts for a lot in how a work of art is perceived. If you’ve been stranded in a desert with nothing to drink, a communion chalice of grape soda may taste like the finest Champagne. Having experienced theater only via computer screens for some 150 days, I was thirsty for any kind of in-person encounter with flesh-and-blood practitioners.
I hasten to add here that this “Godspell” isn’t just better than nothing. And it’s as deeply affecting as it is not despite, but because of, its well-worn material. In reimagining a string of biblical life lessons and folkified hymns and gospel songs for the age of the coronavirus, Mr. Filderman and company are speaking to contemporary fears bred by isolation and inaction.
The production begins with the cast members describing what their lives have been like during lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests. (The original “Godspell” portrayed a battling dialogue of famous philosophers.)
They have all had their acting careers derailed, and they describe feelings of fear, even mortal fear, and hopelessness. And they worry that the theater they knew and lived by might indeed be a thing of the past.
Dressed not in the flower-child glad rags associated with the 1973 “Godspell” film but in Hunter Kaczorowski’s inventive variations on denim work and play clothes, they proceed not only to speak but to embody the show’s most crucial precept. You know, do unto others, etc.
The golden rule here takes the form of their nearly always keeping at least six feet from one another. Whenever they have to cross one another’s paths they make sure their masks (bunched around their necks) are pulled into place. When a chorus sings Schwartz’s tuneful earwig pop gospel — an activity known to let spittle fly — it does so behind the transparent panels of Randall Parsons’s beautifully utilitarian set. (Matthew E. Adelson’s patterned lighting helps keep it from looking like a doctor’s waiting room.)
Despite being part of a cast of 10, each performer is up there alone. They usually dance (even tap dance) in place, sometimes seated. (High points: Nicholas Edwards as Jesus and Tim Jones as Judas doing a vaudeville-style duet with yardsticks instead of canes, and lots of hand-sanitizing shtick, and Zach Williams vamping like a killer chorine from “Chicago.”) When the script calls for physical contact — which includes being baptized, embracing, slapping a cheek (so the other can be turned) and, of course, a Judas kiss — action and reaction are delivered in separate, distanced places.
As a metaphor for how so many of us have been living since March, this form of theatrical communication feels both heartbreaking and valiant. We adapt, we make do, even as we long to return to the age of the handshake and the hug.
This style of performance also has the advantage of scaling back the antic, exhibitionist quotient of “Godspell.” As in most latter-day productions, there are interpolated cute contemporary references (they here include Dad jokes and the Occupy movement). But there’s a new sense of reflectiveness here, and you actually feel you’re seeing the show’s precepts put into action.
Of course, the telling of the parables — the prodigal son, the good Samaritan — still fill lots of stage time, a bit tediously, with the performers adopting cute accents. It’s when the cast members, most of whom embody a multitude of roles, sang that I found my mandatory face mask was often wet with tears.
It’s not that all have exceptional voices (although Alex Getlin, doing “By My Side,” written by Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon, has an Orphic folk alto to melt stone). But they sing with clarity, conviction and a radiant gratitude for the chance to be there. And neither they nor Andrew Baumer’s musical direction ever push too hard for soul-rousing, hand-clapping effect (not even during the show’s breakout hit, “Day by Day,” sincerely sung by Isabel Jordan).
As for the man of the moment — or should I say of eternity? — Edwards’s open-faced Jesus is no holier-than-thou, preachy prophet. In song, he projects a beatified ambivalence that turns mixed feelings into a state of grace. His voice segues from burnished mellowness into a big, blazing brightness that’s always underscored with pain.
When he finishes singing the ballad “Beautiful City,” he looks both ravenously hopeful and devastated as he tries to envision a radiant future. I never thought I’d say this, but I know exactly how Jesus feels.
Godspell Through Sept. 4, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
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