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Justin Bieber, The Messiah:

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City Stage
21 North Front Street
April 15-17, 22-24 and April 29 – May 1, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $14 – $18

DISCIPLES OF THE STAGE: City Stage hosts a large cast as part of the updated 21st-century version of ‘Godspell.’ Courtesy photo.

movie stars
Just in time for Lent and Holy Week, City Stage is presenting “Godspell,” because, face it: This is the time of year it makes sense to produce the show. It doesn’t have the same market value in September. In 1971, it actually debuted in New York at La Mama on Ash Wednesday.

Live theatre offers two very valid opportunities for revivals of well-loved shows: One is for audiences to see their favorite shows as they remember them. When someone buys tickets for the “Sound of Music” or “The Music Man,” I imagine said person wants to see the re-creation of the show so they, too, can sing along with their favorite songs, and watch talented dancers and singers for a fun-filled evening.

The other opportunity is to see a varied aspect of a well-known script. “The Santaland Diaries” is the perfect example, as audiences view David Sedaris’ work through assorted interpretation. Each year a different actor performs it, and each brings his own vision of the production and characteristics to the protagonist, Crumpet, to life. It is truly an opportunity to appreciate that art is dynamic, reflexive and pulsating with life—not trapped in a box of worn-out expectations.

Director William Day has put his stamp on the musical “Godspell.” This is not the light, campy, happy, hippie clown-version following Jesus through the park as depicted on film. Day’s interpretation is dark and, well, not really filled with hope. He is exploring our modern society’s taste for text messaging, Facebook and celebrity worship in place of real personal connections. The message is powerful, as folks likely will leave the theatre with more questions than answers. As Jesus asks in act one: “Did I promise you an answer to the question?”

Upon entering the theater, the audience is treated to a pre-show screening of vintage animation, a throwback to a simpler time. It also acts as a vehicle for focusing the audience’s attention upon the movie screen at the top of the stage. Day’s production concept revolves around our society’s dependence upon a screen for receiving life direction: TV, films, the Internet and cell phones. The screen is an additional character, calling the shots from above, as it were throughout the show and culminating in Jesus being crucified upon it—a striking visual image of the power of “The Screen” in contemporary America.

The lights dim when a distressed woman (Morganna Bridgers) is flung upon the stage, clutching her cell phone and staring at a text message that kicks off the overture: “The Tower of Babble.” The ensemble enters—an unhappy, distrustful and down right antagonistic group of people—to find John the Baptist (Adam Poole) in their midst dressed as a NYC firefighter. Like a first responder to the scene of a disaster, Poole begins administering comfort and care, in the form of baptisms and a bit of theology as an introduction for Jesus (Cameron Miles Young).

Young is hands-down a dead ringer for Justin Bieber—and he can sing, too. This might be the most striking casting choice Day made to construct his “Tableau of Modern Society.” Justin Bieber: child superstar, innocent propelled into the demonic world of show business by a powerful parent with a master plan. This is the Messiah we must all revere in modern America. God help us.

Day is a director who believes that the fourth wall between stage and audience is made to be broken. Actors wander through the crowd, and Bridger’s knock-out interpretation of “Turn Back, O Man” as Lady Gaga begins almost in the lighting booth, and she slinks through the audience, leaving little to the imagination. It seems almost to be his antidote to our world of screens—if you want to be free of The Screen, reach out to a real person and break down the wall!

Each cast member is very talented. The night I attended, the audience was moved to applaud all the solos and duets. The cast can sing, they can dance, and Day choreographed the show with fluid movement between the audience, the stage and its levels. Still, the cast struggles to find connections with each other and with Jesus. This is obviously a carefully crafted choice on Day’s part: It reflects the struggle we have to make real connections. Even during “Day By Day,” they reach out to Jesus and each other, but they don’t bring it home. How can they? Connection is too far away, when the Messiah is crucified upon a screen.

Chiaki Ito, musical director extraordinaire, has yet again assembled talent and craft to back up the action. I look forward to any opportunity to see a show with her live band. Consistently, they bring quality work and enhance the experience of live theatre beyond the words on the page. I wish they had been utilized more in this production, possibly as music to connect the scenes. In the film Jesus had a minor theme that surfaced to signal scene shifts and provide some continuity to his presence in the script. Ito is more than capable of providing these nuances that take the show over the top. Perhaps in the future Day will take advantage of the incredible arsenal that Ito brings with her.

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