By: Mick Axelrod
For many in the Las Vegas community, theater is their religion, and understandably so: I believe that besides the religious origins of theater, it fills the same sort of needs that people get out of going to church, synagogue, or mosque. It is designed to scapegoat the main character and offer sacrifices and pageantry; the seats are pews and the lines are sacraments – a well-designed play can be as profound as any time you spend in a sacred space. It is a strange thing though when organized religion and theater cross paths, as they did at the Onyx Theatre with Off-Strip Productions and Poor Richard’s Player’s Las Vegas Premiere of Godspell, which I saw the second-to-last performance of on August 16th, 2013.
Godspell, by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak, is a show designed around the life of and the parables told by Jesus of the Christian Bible, particularly the books of Matthew and Luke. The direction by Lysander Abadia and lighting design by Jake Copenhaver were well-done, utilizing the space and the use of darkness in an interesting capacity; the pared-down instrumentation by musical directors Karalyn Clark (who also played John the Baptist and Judas, which frankly was slightly confusing) and Thomas Chrastka was masterful and very intimate, though it made the show seem even more like what it felt like to those whose religious experience is not Christian…namely church.
Having studied comparative religion in school, the story that was presented in Godspell was not new to me – however, being of a Judaic background, and knowing the history of passion plays and how they were used to incite anti-Semitism through many generations, made the production quite uncomfortable for me as I felt as though I was being preached at. The overall effect gave the tone that Christian proselytes have always imbued toward people that don’t believe in Jesus as their savior, namely, that their beliefs are deficient because they don’t include belief in the Christian god. Anyone from a background besides Christianity would feel uncomfortable with the content of this play, which is not a fault, I believe, of the director or cast, but an issue of the play itself, which sparks the question as to why Poor Richard’s Players opted to perform this production at all, particularly at the Onyx.
That said, the performances were rather remarkable, with strong showings from the ensemble cast supporting each other, their beautiful harmonies filling the Onyx space. The music is lovely, as church music is intended to be, swelling religious feelings that only music is capable of regardless of your particular inclination. Stand-out performances from Alana Gallo, Benjamin Loewy (Jesus), and Karalyn Clark made the show all the more bearable for this audience member, with their command of singing shining through the strong showing from the lot.