‘Godspell’ sings of community
- Published: April 9, 2015
In 1970, Jon Michael Tebelak, a young gay playwright and student at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, attended Easter services at an upscale Catholic church, wearing his usual t-shirt and jeans. After the service, he was frisked by a policeman and accused of using drugs. Furious about being treated as a criminal, Tebelak went home and in a frenzy wrote a new play based on what he believed was the real message from the Gospels. The play turned into his masters thesis, which later became a Broadway hit musical “Godspell.”
“‘Godspell’ is inclusive. It says, let’s build community with all of the people,” said Ed Knapp of the Yellow Springs Theater Company, this week. “It’s what Jesus said. Love one another.”
“Godspell,” with its focus on Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness, will come to Yellow Springs this weekend and next, April 3, 4, 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. and April 5 and 12 at 3 p.m. at the Mills Lawn gym.
Tickets are $10 at the door. And because the play’s message of inclusion remains relevant in a state that still outlaws same-sex marriage, the production will offer special $15 tickets for sale on Easter Sunday, with $5 donated to YS Pride.
“We’re reaching out to the Pride community,” Knapp, the show’s producer, said. “The playwright was a gay man who wanted the play to say, ‘Just be yourself.’”
“Godspell” is the fourth production of the Yellow Springs Theater Company, which was created about a year ago by a group of local actors and theater enthusiasts who seek to be not a community theater, but a “theater for the community” that produces work that “galvanizes the community and challenges people to look at the world in a new way,” according to YSTC member Lorrie Sparrow, who plays Jesus in “Godspell.”
Apparently the group is filling a need. The response to the YSTC’s previous productions — “D’Arc Comedy,” “Killers,” and the 10-Minute Play Festival — has been “tremendous,” according to Sparrow and Knapp. In fact, at the 10-Minute Play Festival earlier this year, two theater colleagues from Springfield were dumbfounded when 100 people filled the First Presbyterian Church for the first evening of unknown original short plays. Even more attended on the second.
“They said that in Springfield they wouldn’t have had nine people, or even six, show up,” Knapp said. “But people here were excited.”
With “Godspell,” the group is offering its most widely known production, described at its Off Broadway debut as “a fidgety, color-splattered, jubilant and most enjoyable new rock musical,” by the New York Times critic Walter Kerr. The show is full of hummable tunes with pop, folk, rock and gospel origins by Stephen Schwartz, such as “Day by Day.”
“We hope people sing along,” Sparrow said.
Director Robert Campbell was drawn to “Godspell” because of its message of creating community, he said this week.
“It’s about building our family,” he said, encouraging villagers to “come with an open mind” and enjoy the show’s music and message.
In the title role of Jesus, Sparrow is once again stepping into a show at the last minute as either actor (“The Crucible”) or director (“West Side Story”), after the originally-cast actor had to quit the show for personal reasons. However, Sparrow is undaunted by the challenge. She appeared in “Godspell” at age 12 and later at 16, and she now knows that “Godspell” cast its spell on her at an early age.
When you perform a play during teenage years, “those lines get into your brain,” Sparrow said, and consequently it took only a few days to go off-book in the rehearsals, as the dialogue popped up again in her memory.
Sparrow heads an all-woman eight-person cast, a twist that seems especially relevant to “Godspell’s” message of respect for all, regardless of gender, class or social status.
“This play says that gender doesn’t matter,” Sparrow said.
Other cast members are Sarah Wildman, Jeanna GunderKline, Ali Thomas, Sommer McGuire, Miriam Eckenrode Saari, Ellen Ballerene and Mila De Spain.
Adding another layer of irony, Sparrow was influenced by “Godspell” to such an extent at age 16 that she became a born-again Christian, and wanted to dedicate her life to the church by becoming a minister, she said. However, her church minister informed her forthrightly that a woman could not be a minister, and her best bet was to marry a good Christian man. Years later, Sparrow finds herself playing Jesus (though she’s no longer born-again).
Sparrow went through the theater program at the University of North Carolina Theater Arts program, then took to the road as an equity actor, living at various times in Louisville and Chicago. Knapp, who is married to Sparrow, attended the theater program at Wright State University, became a serious musician while learning various aspects of theater production, and worked many years in radio. Both were raised in the Springfield area, left, then came back to the area about 10 years ago. However, while knowing many of the same people in the local theater world, they didn’t cross paths until they met on Match.com, after which they immediately knew that they were right for each other. They married last December.
The couple, along with a core group of about 10 other theater enthusiasts, formed the Yellow Springs Theater Company, and a dozen others work with the group occasionally. There is no shortage of creative people in Yellow Springs, Sparrow believes.
“There’s plenty of talent here,” Sparrow said. “And there’s many we haven’t yet met because they haven’t walked in the door. That’s why we have to keep the door open.”
Stage manager for the play is Amy Wamsley-Cunningham. Music will be provided by Mary Fahrenbruck, piano; Mark Smarelli, drums; Chuck Young, guitar; and Ed Knapp, bass.