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Civic Theatre stages ‘Godspell’ on a New York City subway

Thu., March 19, 2009

Plenty of people have seen “Godspell” since it premiered in 1970 – but never like this.

Director Troy Nickerson is setting the Spokane Civic Theatre’s new production in a New York City subway station – complete with white tiles, graffiti and street musicians.

This may seem like a stretch, since “Godspell” is based on the Gospel of Matthew and the main character is Jesus. But in many ways, this makes complete sense.

“I was talking to some friends about this and I was looking for places where different types of people gather in one area,” said Nickerson. “We were thinking about the last time we were in New York City, and what the subways were like. I liked the idea of Jesus as a street performer, gathering crowds wherever he goes.”

This theme also fits the roots of this musical, which has always strived for an informal, young-people-performing- street-theater vibe. The original production was set in a playground and Jesus’ followers were circus performers. Yet the script does not specify any setting or time, allowing directors to use their imaginations. Other productions have been set in museums, schools and even in an alternate universe.

“It seems like this has been done in every possible way,” said Nickerson. “It was strange, when we started this production, trying to make it different. But what it really came back to was this: Embracing what the musical really is.”

In essence, it’s a story of community. It’s a telling of the story of Jesus, through the eyes of Matthew (and in some cases, Luke), in a way that emphasizes the loving and caring community that Jesus drew around him.

“Whatever faith you have – or even if you don’t – it’s an amazing show about morality and being human,” said Nickerson.

The community includes people from all walks of life – just like you would find in a subway station. Judas is portrayed as a Wall Street executive (fitting nicely with the 2009 zeitgeist) and John the Baptist as a “skateboard kid.”

“Godspell” remains an oft-performed play, partly because of its simplicity, and it has always been “a rite of passage for actors,” said Nickerson. For instance, the 1972-’73 Toronto production featured the then-unknown actors Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas and Martin Short. Paul Shaffer was the music director.

In this production, Jesus will be played by Robby French, Judas by David Gigler and John the Baptist by Mark Schurtz. The rest of the roles are played by an ensemble including Emily Bayne, Mike Hynes, Hannah Kimball, Manuela Peters, Mary Starkey, David Williams and Jillian Wiley.

Nickerson’s production will feature a four-piece band on the stage, along with four backup singers. Becky Moonitz is the music director. The score, written by Stephen Schwartz, contains the song, “Day by Day,” which became a Top 40 hit in 1972 and other well-known songs, such as “Prepare Ye” and “All Good Gifts.” Schwartz went on to write the music for “Pippin” and, more recently, “Wicked.”

The show is in the Civic’s intimate downstairs space, the Firth Chew Studio Theatre, which Nickerson said fits well with the small-scale roots of the show.

Yet be prepared for a surprise when you walk in. Set designer Peter Hardie has been hard at work, making this black-box theater look like the place to catch the A Train.

Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or

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