`Godspell' bursts forth again with rainbow exuberance

Godspell Musical by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by David H. Bell. They are into the third song in the Ford's Theatre production of ``Godspell'' before the joy bursts through, like daffodils after a soaking spring rain.

But it's worth the wait. The vintage hippie musical about the Gospel according to St. Matthew has come back to the Ford, where it began its successful 18-month American run in 1972. Washingtonians still talk about John-Michael Tebelak's original hit production with nostalgia for its clowns-of-God cast and its rainbow exuberance.

It's a hard act to follow, as director and choreographer David H. Bell has discovered from the print criticism here by reviewers who draw unfavorable comparisons between the two. For those of us who weren't around for the original Ford production of ``Godspell,'' this one is a heavenly romp through the Gospel, with jubilant humor, songs, and dance bringing fresh insights to Jesus' words and parables.

Stephen Schwartz's wonderful music and lyrics at times seem thin in this production, which puts the musicians not down front but at the back on stage right, diminishing the sound. The voices of the actors/singers are also dispersed at times on James Fouchard's spiraling plank boardwalk of a set, which gives off a faint scent of fresh pine. As a whole, though, David Bell's version of ``Godspell'' is worth a hallelujah.

But first you have to hang on through the opening number, billed as a prologue tower of babble, which gets this musical off to a dismal start. The cast enters looking as though it's dressed in sackcloth and ashes, wearing grim gray monk's cloaks and carrying signs identifying them as figures like Luther and Socrates.

Things pick up when the traditional ram's horn sounds the call for the next number, the evocative ``Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,'' in which we meet Jesus (Eric Aaron) and John the Baptist (Steve Blanchard, who plays many roles).

Both they and the rest of the cast are dressed like Renaissance circus performers, in costume designer Doug Marmee's white, crenelated tunics with red trim, and white pants tucked into white boots. Eric Aaron's Jesus is dark haired, gentle and mild, sweetly patient with his rowdy followers but lacking the spiritual authority which would center the performance on him. Steve Blanchard, a compelling blond actor who first appears in the Baptist role, tends to outshine Aaron when he's on stage with him. He is a talented and spirited performer who might well have been cast in the role of Jesus.

With ``Day by Day,'' the exuberant prayer in song in which the bubbling actress Betsy True leads the players, the musical suddenly catches fire. The night we saw it, the audience burst into clapping and singing along with the cast in almost revival meeting style.

This ``Godspell'' is an intimate production with a smattering of tent meeting, vaudeville, puppet show, and gospel hour, so that Eric Aaron as Jesus can even do a Groucho Marx shtick and get away with it.

The players do the parable of the good Samaritan with a bolt of purple cloth as a set and a Punch-and-Judy hilarity about those who pass by, while the Samaritan stops to aid the wounded, robbed traveler with Christly compassion. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, they play angels dressed in big ruffled baby bonnets, among the many colorful costume props the players pull from a wardrobe trunk on stage. The production's version of the prodigal son parable reduces it drastically to a swineherd setting.

Perhaps the best of their playful versions of Jesus' parables is that of the prodigal son. In it the prodigal, dressed in a Stetson like a wayward cowboy, finds himself a swineherd to a porcine chorus in snouts that would give Miss Piggy a run for her money.

At the end of a rousing version of ``Light of the World,'' the musical breaks for an intermission before Act II. Sitting behind us was a small boy who had never seen live theater before, and he asked his parents, ``Is this the commercial?''

After the ``commercial,'' ``Godspell'' takes on a more somber tone with the approaching arrest and crucifixion of Jesus (``Turn Back, O Man,'' ``Alas for You,'' and ``By My Side''). Steve Blanchard, John Ganzer, and the other players sing a stirring version of the song of the cross, ``On the Willows.''

The actual crucifixion is depicted by filling the stage with huge banners of red silk, out of which Jesus rises. And the resurrection is signaled by a triumphant finale in which the players move down into the aisles where the audience joins them in singing.

Ford's executive producer, Frankie Hewitt, hopes ``Godspell'' will play right up to the edge of summer.

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