Tuned Up

Updated versions of Godspell and Cabaret retain their freshness and relevance


Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Sq.

Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; presented by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company through April 15. Call 314-534-3810.

The current production by the St. Louis Black Repertory Company is, thank goodness, not your father's Godspell. The musical seemed fresh in 1971, with its pop-rock score and humanistic look at Christ's teachings. It was a perfect show for its time -- Jesus as a laid-back, really cool leader of a commune. At the Black Rep, the show has been updated: Outlandish hippie garb has been replaced by outlandish thrift-store garb, and the infectious tunes have been given updated arrangements by composer Stephen Schwartz. But between those songs, there's never been much of a play. Its disjointed retelling of the St. Mark Gospel, using a mix of vaudeville and story theater, rises or falls on the energy and personality of the cast. The ensemble at the Black Rep has large amounts of both and delivers a winning, entertaining production.

The music, played by a four-piece band under the direction of Oscar Williams Jr., quite simply kicks ass. The new arrangements include gospel and rap influences and add more beat and life to the old songs. You may think you never want to hear "Day by Day" again, but Lisa Nicole Wilkerson makes it sound fresh, and the moment when the accompaniment shifts from 3/4 to 4/4 time is magical. "Learn Your Lessons Well" is now a tap/stomp number, led by a charming Candace Parker, and Leslie Johnson's moving, full-blown gospel rendition of "All Good Gifts" is the vocal highlight of the show. Sharisa Whatley does a fine job handling the rap assignments for the evening, though her rendition of "Turn Back O Man" seemed to be pitched a bit out of her range. Rheaume Crenshaw and Renée Lunceford combine for a beautiful "By My Side," and Willie Hitchcock leads the ensemble in "We Beseech Thee." Gregory Carr, Wayne Easter and Immanuel Guest make up the rest of the ensemble.

J. Samuel Davis, one of our town's finest actors, is excellent as John the Baptist and Judas, conveying lots of character with little dialogue. As Jesus, Gary Vincent is earnest and has a fine voice; he's at his strongest when he adopts the melodious vocal delivery of a preacher, an effect he's careful not to overdo. But he fails to make a strong emotional connection with either the audience or the other characters, and when he bids goodbye to his disciples, the sadness seems unearned.

Directors Ron Himes and Wayne Salomon keep the parables moving with playful and imaginative staging. They've filled the show with funny up-to-the-minute pop-cultural references that are essential to the show's theme of the contemporary relevance of Christ's teachings. What would a production of Godspell in 2001 be without a "Whassup?" joke? But sometimes the focus of the storytelling gets lost in the frenetic improvising. It would have been nice to get to know each ensemble member a little better outside their musical numbers, but some don't have much individuality beyond that supplied by their costumes.

The high-energy choreography is by Millie Garvey; like the music, it draws from many influences and serves each number perfectly. Sound designer David Medley gamely helps the cast fight the spotty acoustics of the Grandel and usually wins.

Cabaret, at the New Line Theatre, is a flawed but noteworthy production of the groundbreaking musical, which is as fresh and provocative as it was when it was created in 1966. Cabaret tells the story of how Hitler's rise to power affects the lives of two couples in 1930 Berlin: the Old World Fraulein Schneider (Mo Monahan) and Herr Schultz (Arthur Schwartz), and Cliff Bradshaw (Todd Schaefer) and Sally Bowles (Robin Kelso), expatriates from America and England, respectively. As the Nazis gain control, it's how these characters react (or don't react) that provides the drama.

The production is at its strongest in the musical numbers, all staged deftly on the tiny clublike stage by director Scott Miller and choreographer JT Ricroft. Vocally, the cast is first-rate, the band excellent (the accordion is a nice touch), and the songs touch and convey the characters in a way that the dramatic scenes don't. The emotional heart of the play comes through the performance of Schwartz, who, as Herr Schultz, embodies the Old World values that will soon be gone. When he maintains that the Jews will be fine and that Germans would never hurt each other, it breaks our hearts as we consider what's in store for him.

Kelso as Sally wins us over the first time she opens her mouth to sing. She brings energy to the play whenever she's onstage; it's easy to see why she gets any man she wants. But we don't get to see what Sally is really feeling, if anything, until the climax of the show, when Kelso mesmerizes with her delivery of the title song, packing an evening's worth of heartbreak, self-examination and character into one number. It would have been nice to see the same complexity and subtext in her dramatic scenes.

As Cliff, Schaeffer has a strong singing voice and an appealing naturalness and ease onstage, but he lacks the maturity to be the complex moral center of the play. His passion sometimes comes across as hysteria, and his habit of slapping his thighs to punctuate his lines becomes distracting.

The New Line production follows the lead of the recent Broadway revival in turning up the decadence factor; presumably this is more "honest," because it shows Berlin in 1930 in ways that couldn't be portrayed in 1966. But just because we can be more permissive nowadays, does that mean we have to be? In the opening number, "Wilkommen," the over-rouged, zombielike Kit Kat girls (and boys, in this production, who look as if they just got off their shift at Chippendale's) and their Emcee (Christopher Crivelli) perform enough pelvic thrusts and simulated oral sex for several productions. We're supposed to be shocked, shocked, but the gestures are so mechanical and contrived that they become boring and meaningless. Perhaps that's what director Miller intended: Sex has become common currency, as devalued as the German mark. But shouldn't decadence at least be a little fun?

When the production plays to the material's strengths, it makes its points in ways that only musical theater can: the wistful "Marriage," with a lovely counterpoint sung by Deborah Sharn; the use of the Kit Kat songs to comment on the dramatic action; and the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" that closes Act 1. When you find yourself humming the tune at intermission, and then realize exactly what you're singing and how easily you bought into it, you know that the play still has something to say about the dangers of listening to too much cheerleading. We should all consider our answer to the question posed in Fraulein Schneider's song, "What Would You Do?"

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