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The cast of the Manatee Players' production of Godspell.[/caption]

By Kay Kipling

If you’re older than say, 50, chances are you’ve seen some very different versions of the show Godspell, a loose retelling of some New Testament parables and the life of Jesus Christ. It’s the kind of work that allows for lots of interpretation by the director and cast, and it’s also the kind of production you might find in a church basement—low-budget, energetic and earnest, fitting for a cast of high school or college students. It also seems a likely enough choice for the Manatee Players’ intimate Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theatre, where the troupe’s current production resides. (I saw a preview performance Wednesday night.)

But freedom to experiment, with a free-form, bare-bones show like this one (which originated back in 1971 thanks to writer John-Michael Tebelak and came to feature some fairly well-known songs by a young Stephen Schwartz) means some things work, some things don’t. And that’s the case with this production, directed and choreographed by Cory Boyas (with musical direction by Michelle Neal).

The cast actually begins its work before the curtain, wandering about the stage and aisles wearing white medical gowns and booties and interacting with the audience with a sense of noisy, childish exuberance. I was never quite sure about the costumes’ intent, although it may have had something to do with the show’s Tower of Babble opening number, which features the performers reading from a number of philosophical books in a way that escalates, soon enough, to bedlam.

Enter John the Baptist (Jay Morgan), advising them to Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, i.e., Jesus (Brian Chunn). From here on in, the action is easier to follow, with Chunn telling stories to illustrate certain moral rights and wrongs and the other actors (all women here, aside from Morgan and Chunn) enacting various roles, like Pharisees, tax gatherers, prostitutes, Prodigal Sons and the like.

Boyas has staged some of the show’s numbers in a lively way, considering the close confines the cast is working in, and a few of Schwartz’s tunes, like All for the Best, with its vaudeville-y approach, and Light of the World, the Act I closer, get the audience clapping. But while most of the cast can sing well enough, the acoustics of the theater daunt them at times; it’s hard to distinguish the lyrics unless they’re singing aimed right at you.

The show turns more poignant, naturally, towards its close, as Jesus prepares to suffer his fate on the cross (On the Willows). But while this Godspell does feature a cast with the right spirit and those strong Schwartz songs, like Day By Day, All Good Gifts and more, it doesn’t really uplift or touch the heart as much as one wants it to.

Godspell continues through Nov. 16; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.

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