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Review: ‘Godspell’ knits improv, Gospel

“Godspell” is one of those musicals – like “Jesus Christ Superstar” – that has proven to be critic-proof.

Doubters – the critical kind, not the religious kind – can point out time and again that the show has only one memorable song, a dated ’70s hippie vibe, an amateur-hour aesthetic more fun to perform than to watch and a plot that reduces one of the most powerful stories in history to an excuse for variety-show shtick.

And theaters will continue to produce it, actors will revel in it, and plenty of people will continue to love every second of it.

So, I’m just going to save space by pointing out that I am one of those critical doubters, and nothing, not even this energetic and creative Firth J. Chew Studio Theatre production, has ever changed my mind.

Instead, we can move directly to a more positive subject – the fact that director Troy Nickerson has put together a talented and clearly committed cast to get the most out of what “Godspell” has to offer. And what it has to offer is a blank slate for a director and cast to show off an uncommonly wide spectrum of acting, comedy and musical skills.

Nickerson has set this show in a New York subway station, complete with white tiles, a “28th Street” sign, and graffiti (WWJD, fittingly). This allows the cast to appear as a cross-section of America, including a Wall Street Judas (David Gigler) and a skateboarding John the Baptist (Mark Schurtz).

This is a welcome change from the traditional “Godspell,” in which the characters are portrayed (for reasons I have never quite understood) as circus performers and clowns. Yet the subway setting doesn’t really change the essential nature of the show. “Godspell” remains a show that knits the Gospel of Matthew together with a wide variety of improv-style acting techniques.

Nickerson’s ensemble proves up to it – and how. At one point, they get down on all fours and turn into sheep and goats. At another point, they pretend to be pigs. Manuela Peters trots across the stage on an imaginary horse.

The variety of human types they impersonate is equally impressive. Someone will suddenly turn into John Wayne for a scene. Other times, Groucho Marx will slink across the stage. Nickerson has clearly allowed this talented ensemble to shed all of their inhibitions and fears and let their inner Martin Short or Gilda Radner come to the fore.

Robby French, as a charismatic and streetwise Jesus, is the leader of the pack in every way. He’s the man with the Groucho walk, but he is also the man who can deliver a moving parable and a deeply inspiring lesson on mankind’s essential obligations.

Musically, the high point is – naturally – “Day by Day,” kicked off with moving simplicity by Mary Starkey, but then transformed into a rousing full-ensemble gospel number.

Emily Bayne also shows off her vocal strengths in the bluesy, “Turn Back, Old Man.” A four-piece band tucked into the corner of this black-box space creates powerful accompaniment, under the direction of Becky Moonitz.

A backup vocal quartet occasionally leaves its perch and joins the action onstage. Lei Broadstone joins Jillian Wylie to fine effect on “By My Side.”

Nickerson calls “Godspell” a story about the formation of a community. I’m not entirely certain it works in the broader sense of showing how a religious community can form and endure. Yet it definitely demonstrates the way a community of theater people can come together, under inspired direction, and stretch their artistic limits.

“Godspell” continues through April 11. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.

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