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Theater Review : Players Mix It, But Fail To Prop A Sagging 'Godspell'

October 13, 1987|NANCY CHURNIN

NATIONAL CITY — OK kids, listen up. The "Jeopardy" answer for the day is: A neon sign that says "Doc's" overlooks a TV spray-painted white; chandeliers, snowflakes and a cow hang from the rafters.

No, the question is not "What is a Robert Woodruff set?" but, rather, "What is 'Godspell' as it appears at the Lamb's Players Theatre through Nov. 21?"

Forget the deep metaphorical analyses here. What set designer Mike Buckley has created is a celebration of Lamb's Players Past, including props from its productions of "West Side Story," "Rhinoceros," "Shake the Country" (in case you were wondering where the cow comes from) and even the poles and trunk from the company's 1982 version of "Godspell."

It's a charming idea that has everything to do with Lamb's Players and nothing to do with the musical at hand. In fact, the whole production, which has some of the players calling each other by their real names, seems to be aimed less at creating a piece of theater than celebrating the company and what it, as a Christian troupe, stands for.

One can't completely blame the players for hedging their bets on the John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz creation.

Although "Godspell" and the Lamb's Players Theatre are both 16 this year, age has not been equally kind to them. While Lamb's has shown itself capable of highly sophisticated work, most notably in this season's little gem "Talley's Folly," "Godspell" seems frozen in time as a childlike hippie version of the Gospel according to Matthew. Ultimately, despite occasional touching and clever moments, the show succeeds mainly as a reminder that you can't go home again.

Not that the production doesn't try mightily.

Director Robert Smyth has updated the script with topical references galore. Jesus relates his parables in the guise of a TV anchor, an ice cream man and the sweatered host of "Mr. Rabbi's Neighborhood." Other players illustrate lessons in grand "Dragnet," "Romper Room" and "The Real McCoys" style.

The actors have a good time with these satiric bits which, at times, are the spars that keep the show afloat. Phil Card is especially winning as Jesus, capturing the watchful, loving concern that goes along with the territory of the charismatic teacher.

Rick Meads provides a strong voice and a great deal of flair in a variety of roles, including a swell Walter Brennan imitation. But he doesn't have the cutting edge that Judas demands. Vanda Eggington is a natural comedienne, at one point playing a self-righteous church lady with Gilda Radner snippiness. Unfortunately, though she does an adequate job in her double role as musical director, she can't sing.

Dave Brown offers fine vocal and dramatic support, as does Stan Armbruster in his Lamb's Players' debut. Veteran performers Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Kerry Cederberg are standouts, especially in their poignant rendition of "By My Side." Their success with this moment of adult longing contrasts sharply with the unconvincing times when the company scraps with each other--supposedly like children--and stares at Jesus with an adoration that is unnervingly suggestive of cult members.

Buckley does a fine job with the lighting, sometimes doing more when he does less as in the bare look he creates for the "By My Side" duet. Pamela Turner's unimaginative choreography settles for some predictable steps, all ho-hum-ingly confined to the center of the stage.

Creditably, the costumes show an effort to be up-to-date. Instead of Jesus wearing the expected "Godspell" Superman suit, he and the other players are dressed by Veronica Murphy Smith in colorful, if not particularly eye-catching, '80s-ware. The highlight is a trendy aerobics outfit, complete with ankle warmers, worn by Deborah Gilmour Smyth.

The opening night audience did seem to have a good time, even to the point of giving the show a standing ovation. They evidently didn't care that the world has spun some revolutions since 1971 and that society's conception of flower power innocence has yielded to the chilling image of Moonies selling blooms at airports. Yes, the world can use a musical that posits belief in this spiritually impoverished environment.

But "Godspell" isn't it.

"GODSPELL" A musical retelling of the Gospel according to Matthew by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz. Director, Robert Smyth. Musical direction, Vanda Eggington. Choreography, Pamela Turner. Costumes, Veronica Murphy Smith. Set and lighting, Mike Buckley. Stage manager, David Heath. With Stan Armbruster, Dave Brown, Phil Card, Kerry Cederberg, Vanda Eggington and Deborah Gilmour Smyth. At 8 p.m. Tuesday--Saturday, Saturday matinees at 2. Closes Nov. 21. At Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City.

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