How Do You Spell God?: A review of the spring production


The University of New Haven Theater Department put on four performances of the musical “Godspell” last week. The play tells stories from the Bible, specifically tales from the Gospel according to the Apostle Mark. With such an established source material – not just the play itself but also the Bible – I was intrigued to see how they would handle retelling these stories.

The first thing I noticed was the set, which was designed to look like a back alley with various University of New Haven (UNH) and Bible-related graffiti symbols on the walls. It was clearly aiming to emulate the original set of the 1970 production and the theater department did a great job of doing so.

The play opened with the ensemble cast in black cloaks muttering various pessimistic and negative statements before John the Baptist, played by Jose “J.R.” Resto, a junior criminal justice major, steps in and baptizes the group who then ran off stage for a costume change. Resto also played Judas in this production, however the switch between these two characters was a bit blurry since both characters act the same and have the same outfit. Jesus was played by Chad Celini, a senior forensic science major, who also walks in and gets baptized before the play begins in earnest.

“Godspell” has the feel of a Christian improv troupe ad-libbing jokes and interacting with the audience with occasional musical numbers to break things up. With that in mind, a lot of the comedic material was adjusted to fit modern-day pop culture references into the story. Unfortunately, a lot of jokes in the production fell flat or lacked punch. There were a few moments when the cast on-stage was laughing more than the audience. Despite this, there were a few moments when I found myself chuckling at a joke or two. The first act also does a good job of being tasteful with the material while still being fun.

Both lead actors delivered stellar performances; Resto in particular was a joy to watch and listen to. The ensemble was a great complement to the lead performances as well. However, the production could have used more diversity in casting since a majority of the cast sang in the soprano or alto range. This meant that a lot of numbers felt a bit shrill as there wasn’t enough bass to balance out the higher-pitched voices.

The Bucknall Theater has a history of poor sound mixing and everyone singing in one range meant that most soloists had to push themselves to be heard, which led to a lot of solos being drowned out or sounding flat due to the strain on their vocal cords; one cast member was stuck singing an octave above the already high vocal parts. Despite their valiant effort, they came up just short of the note they were trying to hit which caused songs to feel dissonant or out of tune. While there were mics on the actors, they were inconsistent in functionality and were only present when they were not needed.

I did not understand why they chose to go with eight ensemble members rather than eleven. That would not only supply the other eleven Apostles besides Judas but also give the direction a chance to bring in some lower voices and fill out the arrangement more effectively.

After intermission, the play began the process of betraying and crucifying Jesus. This is where the play began to fall off in quality. Up to this point, the tone was happy-go-lucky, but the overarching tone tried to be more serious while cracking a few jokes here and there which ended up feeling distasteful. The production provided heartfelt and powerful moments such as the Last Supper’s “this is my body” —which was said in actual Hebrew — as well as a fantastic portrayal of Jesus’ lament and betrayal only to follow it up with the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ accompanied by a radical guitar solo. It felt like the play was trying to supply these heavier moments but lacked the courage to go all the way and put comedy to the side for a second.

Despite issues with the performance, honorable mentions should be given to a few members of the ensemble who delivered outstanding individual performances.

First of which are the audience members who were brought up on stage to interact with the scene. I commend you for your bravery and for being the best part of the show.

Makenziy “Kenziy” McClure, a senior theater arts major not only brought fantastic comedic energy to the stage but also sang a wonderful number that worked better since every soprano on stage wasn’t overpowering them.

Ethan LaBarre, a senior psychology major unexpectedly delivered an emotional and bone-chilling ballad that captured the pure sadness of the moment and featured the best vocal mixing of the entire show.

Lastly, Kahlea Hsu, a freshman forensic science major, captured the audience with charisma and show-stopping confidence. My only complaint about her performance is that we didn’t see more of it.

New Haven’s theater department delivered an alright performance to the student body with their rendition of “Godspell.” While there were moments that showed the talent that theater can provide, a lot of the play fell short of the mark with inconsistent sound quality, a lack of musical diversity in the cast and the jokes that either delivered laughter or silence. I look forward to seeing what the theater department can bring next semester.