Post-apocalyptic America meets ‘Godspell’ musical

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Prepare ye the way for Actors’ Playhouse’s enchanting season opener “Godspell,” which opened Friday.

Adapted from the Broadway and off-Broadway hit, “Godspell” is a musical based on the parables of the Gospel of Matthew and features an ensemble cast that finds Jesus Christ and learns to become a community.

David Arisco, artistic director of “Godspell,” wanted his version to be different from previous renditions, setting the story in a future, post-apocalyptic American city. He also insisted that “Godspell” is not about religion but about a group of people that learn to lead better lives.

“The New Testament sets the story in motion,” he said. “Ten separate people come together to learn, share and grow.”

This post-apocalyptic environment is imagined on stage with an elaborate set design featuring various open windows from which the cast emerges between scenes, a water pump used during the opening baptismal scene and a chain-link fence that holds Christ for the crucifixion scene.

While the setting sometimes feels out of place with the play’s theme, the characters and script integrate the two well for a modern audience. Arisco’s script includes pop culture references such as Facebook, Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump.

Interspersing these references throughout Act 1 results in non-stop hilarity.

“We want you to have fun, relaying how we should live our lives, take care of each other and the planet,” Arisco said.

But what sets “Godspell” apart is its musical hits composed by Stephen Schwartz, better known for his role in “Wicked.” Schwartz offers an upbeat array of gospel-inspired sounds that are catchy and light.

The most memorable songs are “Day by Day” and “Light of the World,” which got some members of the audience clapping and tapping their feet. After the show, people were still humming to the uplifting beats.

To bring the music to life, Arisco has compiled a mixed cast of veterans and newcomers that worked well together and remained true to their characters. They were each given a solo and had their own quirks on stage.

Josh Canfield as Jesus gave an exceptional performance in “Beautiful City;” Nick Duckart, as John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot, sang a moving “Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord);” and Henry Gaiza’s “All Good Gifts” left a lasting impression near the end of Act 1.

The powerful voice of Kareema Khouri, the captivating Shea Hess, the believable Cindy Pearce, Heather Kopp, Jeni Hacker, Don Seward and Clay Cartland complete the cast.

The fun in Act 1 is then toned down to a somber state in Act II with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and the final crucifixion scene, an impressive technical moment in which Jesus is lifted as he hangs on a chain-link fence.

The transition from the upbeat songs to the more serious moments felt awkward and changed too quickly though. Minutes after Jesus is carried from the cross, the cast begins to perform an encore of “Light of the World.”

Nevertheless, “Godspell” is the best way to open Actors’ Playhouse 2012-2013 season and the theater’s 25th anniversary. Lively music, a committed cast and a funny script will keep audiences grooving as they leave the theater and coming back for more.

If you go
What: “Godspell”
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables
When: Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$50, $15 student rush tickets available 15 minutes prior to curtain. Tickets can be purchased at actorsplayhouse.org.

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