Critic's Review :
'Godspell' a rousing start to Richter season
By Chesley Plemmons
NEWS-TIMES THEATER CRITIC
There's a born-again enthusiasm at Musicals at Richter, Danbury's outdoor summer theater, and it's not coming just from the invigorating and uplifting score of the season opener.
Music under the stars at Richter has always been one of the joys of summer theatergoing in our area, but the truth of the matter is there's been an inconsistency in the work in recent years that left much to be desired, particularly in the musical accompaniment.
That's all been rectified in spades with a sparkling, well-sung, musically sure production of Stephen Schwartz/John-Michael Tebelak's "Godspell," a musical based lightly on the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
Alas, the schedule at Richter is so tight there's little chance for an extension. So a word to the wise: get your tickets now it closes July 1.
Much of the success of this "Godspell" must go to Don Rickenback, who not only serves as director but leads the small, oh-so-easy-to-listen-to orchestra. Rickenback has taken the circus theme that has always been a part of "Godspell" and expanded it into an all-encompassing "tent" for this musical story of Jesus and his followers.
A colorful assortment of entertainers including a juggler, popcorn vender, magician, face painter, strong man and a sideshow barker wander among the audience before the show begins.
Summoned to the stage by the call of John the Baptist (David Roth), who exhorts them to "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," they find themselves entranced by a youthful and contemporary Jesus (John Congdon).
In the first act, the disparate entertainers experience an emotional and religious epiphany as they bond into a group of friends and fall under the benevolent influence of Jesus. The story and music in the beginning is upbeat and positive, including the well-known "Day by Day," which is led by Cynthia Preston, assisted by Betsy Kohl and Melissa Strand Fike.
Easy-to-grasp parables give way to the more affecting story of betrayal and crucifixion in the second half, dividing the show into a two-sided coin, one light and one dark. Throughout there is a sense of camaraderie that has always radiated across the footlights to young audience members.
The despair and isolation many young people felt as a result of the ethically incorrect 1960s and 1970s was partially exorcised by positive musicals such as "Godspell," "Hair," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."
A musical for this generation is long overdue, but surprisingly "Godspell" doesn't seem a wit dated and will do just fine.
Rickenback has assembled a first-rate cast, all of whom sing, dance and act with great flair. Congdon's Jesus is passionate yet restrained, youthful yet knowing. He is the pal every guy would like to have, the boyfriend every girl dreams of. It's a sensitive performance that helps the emotion of the piece gel.
It would be unfair to single out anyone else from this uniformly fine cast, but also unfair not to mention their names: Rob Ferzola, Juliette Garrison, Anthony Grasso, Elyse Jasensky, Crystal John, Betsy Kohl, Donald Leona, Brian Maher, Cynthia Preston, Melissa Strand Fike, and David Roth, who gets two appreciative nods for playing both John the Baptist and Judas.
Anyone of these performers could rightly be called a star having them together in one cast is a starry delight.
Musicals at Richter was the recent recipient of a grant from the State of Connecticut, which has been put to good use in overhauling the stage into a more compact and sturdy playing area.
The look of the show, from the Technicolor costumes to the circus banners and billboards that decorate the stage, is bright and upbeat. Despite the dark reality of its story, the upbeat spirit of "Godspell" stays with you long after the cast has taken its well-deserved curtain call.
"Godspell" continues Fridays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m. through July 1 at Musicals at Richter, 100 Aunt Hack Road, Danbury. Performances are Fridays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m. The grounds open at 7:15 for picnicking. Chairs can be rented by reservation. Tickets are $15, seniors $12, children $10. Call the box office at (203) 748-6873.
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