FORT LEE, Va. -- The Lee Playhouse opened its new season last weekend with “Godspell,” a showcase of beautiful music, an ensemble of talent with one standout performance and a striking set design.
“Godspell” continues Sept. 14, 15, 21 and 22, at 8 p.m.; and Sept. 16 and 23, at 3 p.m.
The show made its first big splash over 45 years ago when it opened Off-Broadway in the midst of the “Flower Power” era, when American pop culture struggled to shake off their gloom after a decade of assassinations, an unpopular war and social upheaval by embracing a counterculture explosion of youth, “flowers in their hair” and a hope for justice, community and freedom.
The production feels like a happy keepsake from that era. Featuring a score by a Stephen Schwartz (who penned Broadway’s monster hit, “Wicked”), this show transformed the parables of the Gospels into a series of songs and schtick all about peace, love and understanding.
This breezy, loosely-structured show has remained a theater staple in the intervening decades, thanks in to the show’s innocuous, bubble gum sensibility makes it a safe choice for innumerable amateur, church and high school productions.
Some productions try to make the show seem more “relevant” by inserting either jokes about contemporary figures or references to the current culture (trendy hashtags and unfriending on Facebook, for instance), but the Lee Playhouse production bypasses all that and relies simply on this show’s particular strengths -- exceptional source material and a beautiful score that work together to provide a highly-enjoyable showcase for talented performers.
While “Godspell” is not exactly a Sunday School lesson, there is no mistaking that the Gospels are its source. The text occasionally suffers from being a little too “groovy” (Jesus seeks to be baptized with an enthusiastic “I just want to get washed!”), but fear not (to borrow a phrase), the beauty of the original words comes shining through no matter what tomfoolery is taking place onstage. Parables like the Prodigal Son still manage to be quite poignant, even if the cast is dancing the Macarena in the background.
Composer Schwartz offers an array of well-crafted songs that have proven the test of time. Songs like “Turn Back, O Man,” “Day By Day” and “Beautiful City” are as infectious as ever. Kudos go to the fine orchestra led by music director Alisa Erway and the cast, whose ensemble of pleasing voices alternately inspire, amuse and tug at the heart strings.
A final element that elevates this production is Frank Foster’s set design. Deceptively simple, it is both seductively compelling and a bit unsettling at the same time.
Tickets are $15 for adults; $7 for youth, 16 and under; and $5 for military members, E-1-E-4. Group rates are available.
For more information and possible changes due to the weekend weather, call the box office at (804) 734-6629.