Back in the early 1970s, when "Godspell" first became a hit, mixing popular music with Christianity was bold and controversial. There were still picket lines in front of theaters that were staging "Jesus Christ Superstar." Just a few years before, some people had been saying that the Beatles were agents of Satan.
Those attitudes and that kind of controversy no doubt helped "Godspell," with its unconventional portrayal of Jesus and its mix of pop music styles, become a counter-cultural hit of its era.
It's very obviously a hippie-era show, though, and these days it can't help but seem like a period piece.
The current production from the Manatee Players has a strong 10-person cast and some interesting ideas. But the show still feels dated.
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It works fine during the songs, which have great melodies by Stephen Schwartz, who would go on to compose "Pippin" And "Wicked." Almost all the songs -- "Day By Day" is by far the most well-known -- are bright and catchy, written in an appealing mix of popular music styles and delivered energetically by the Manatee Players led by Brian Chunn as Jesus.
The plotless structure of the show was awkward 40 years ago and hasn't gotten any better. Jesus attracts a rag-tag group of followers and they listen to and act out parables from the gospels and sing songs in between.
Director/chorepographer Cory Boyas sets the shows in some sort of institution or asylum and Jesus is the newest resident. (It doesn't come off as disrespectful in the least.) The other residents transform from patients in white hospital gowns into lively street people in brightly colored garb, and they seek guidance from their new leader.
Boyas, whose direction and choreography are both fun and fluid, has said he sees the show as being about people coming together as a community. Unless you knew he said that, you probably wouldn't get that message. It just feels like a collection of scenes and songs and its roots as a somewhat experimental college production are evident.
When the cast is singing though, the show's thoroughly enjoyable.
It's in the smaller Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, and the intimacy adds to the show's energy. (Don't sit in the front row if you don't want to be pulled up on stage to dance, though.)
The accompaniment comes from Michelle Neal, who's the show's music director and the on-stage pianist. She does a wonderful job with the challenging task, and it's impressive to watch her perform through the song-heavy show.
The trade-off for the intimacy, though, is a lack of power that a band would have given the show.
The Manatee Players production of "Godspell" will delight people who are fans of the show, and on opening night it got a standing ovation.
Details: Through Nov. 16, Bradenton Kiwianis Studio Theatre at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave, W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeplayers.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.