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The gospel of the playground | One cuckoo out of the nest

The gospel of the playground

Blackfriars' cast of talented young performers is presenting Godspell,a wildly imaginative treatment of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

Originally John-Michael Tebelak's MFA directing thesis, Godspell is "a celebration of life." Its clownlike youngsters play and sing joyously in an abandoned playground as a modernized Jesus teaches them through parables. After a seriocomic last supper, Jesus stands tied to a chain-link fence in a mesmerizing crucifixion pantomime. But the disciples carry him out clapping and chanting "Long Live God" fervently. It concludes with "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord" and joyful singing and dancing.

Tebelak wanted it to "weave God's spell over the audience," and I miss his distinctive directorial touches. Director John Haldoupis skips Jesus' ritual daubing of clown makeup on the players and their intermission sharing of wine/grape juice with the audience. I hope his solemn conclusion will evolve into the authors' intended ecstatic statement.

Originally, Godspell had hymns and one song, "By My Side" by Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger (uncredited). After two weeks off-Broadway, Godspell got songs and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz: Songs like "Day By Day," which listeners cant get out of their heads. (The producers didn't know Schwartz was Tebelak's classmate at Carnegie-Mellon University.) Godspell had more than 25 productions worldwide that year.

Schwartz's notes indicate that the set shouldn't be elaborate or pretty, but Haldoupis' stunning cityscape painting is a distracting work of art. And Eli Gelo --- physically slight, spectacled, and small-voiced --- is miscast as Jesus. He's directed to deliver his teachings straight to the audience, hardly looking at his disciples.

Several players deserve praise. Gifted singers like Dawn M. Sargent belt out Schwartz's songs with American Idol-style elongated phrases and screamed-out high notes. David Anthony Vogel displays a pretty tenor. Jesse James as Judas/John the Baptist has the charismatic command needed for Jesus. Andy Pratt plays piano, conducts, sings, and holds things together.

And James Caito carries scenes with super-energy and high-flying dancing. Fortunately, he wears kneepads, because choreographer Meggins Kelley has him dropping forcefully to his knees repeatedly. Even padded, they're not coming out of this show the way they went in.

It's a good community-theater show, but let me quote Stephen Schwartz from the script. "Jesus applies clown makeup to their faces... [showing] that they are his disciples. Jesus removes their makeup... [when] they have assimilated his teachings. At the end, [they are] a community, ready and able to carry forth the lessons... If this basic dramatic arc is not achieved, Godspell does not exist; no matter how amusing and tuneful individual moments may be, the production has failed."

--- Herbert M. Simpson

You should go if

you like a musical with a talented cast, knockout solos, and a stunning, arty set --- not for those who want a copy of the original.

One cuckoo out of the nest

No bells, no whistles, no fog machines: Instead, Ann Randolph's one-woman show has four really engaging music numbers, a banjo, a guitar, and one good, honest, human story. Oh, and a paranoid schizophrenic crackhead. Squeezebox is a sweetheart of a play.

Without any costumes --- unless you count loose limbs, a changeling's face, and a rubber spine --- Randolph opens the window of her ribcage onto a lonely heart and an early-life crisis. She wrote the play while working nights at a homeless shelter for women with mental illness. That job becomes the setting: We meet the lovably foul-mouthed Brandy (the aforementioned schizophrenic who is forever telling people what'll "cost extra"); the sweet wife-of-a-preacher Irene with her angry garage-rock songs; the insufferably smug, Bible-vomiting volunteer Julie.

And through it all Randolph plays herself with tender awkwardness and humor, as a woman whose ideals are badly losing their sheen. Ten years out of school she's making $8 an hour to sleep on a piss-stained coat in a homeless shelter and concoct progress notes for the women's files. Leading a self-esteem group becomes a joke.

Under Randolph's skillful, honest delivery, we really want Ann and all her fellow characters to be happy. We want her to get past one of Mozart's mournful adagios and back "to the third movement."

I don't know if the pursed-lipped Harold, the accordionist whose squeezebox delivers Ann's epiphany, is a real person or not. But I hope so; he's hilarious and achingly dorky. (The consummation scene at the top of the hiking peak, with the accordion and the layers of Gortex and nylon and wool, is hysterical.)

I squirmed briefly when Ann's life meaning was revealed to the tune of an Aaron Copland song. But that brief moment dissolves in Brandy's own slurred, cigarette-swinging version of the deceptively simple moral: "You can do it, Annie, you can do it."

Downstairs Cabaret Theatre is proud to have this play; they're right to be. It has run in Los Angeles, New York City, and Toronto, and the husband-wife team of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft has bought the rights to a movie. No more piss-stained cots, Ann.

--- Erica Curtis

You should go if

you want an uplifting human story that is polished, but never slick. Or, if you want to believe in the life-changing powers of the accordion.

Squeezebox Thursdays through Sundays through May 29 | Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, 172 West Main Street | $21 | 325-4370,