Godspell of the new millennium

Let me start by saying I knew nothing about Godspell. Before I walked into the Elite Theatre Company’s production of what is apparently a ridiculously famous Broadway show, I thought a Godspell was a trance holy rollers invoke when speaking in tongues, a reference to that “opium of the people” thing Karl Marx wrote about, or maybe even a reference to a spell out of a Harry Potter book.

Godspell, as it turns out, is none of these things. In the hands of the Elite Theatre Company, the show is a musical that strings together an admixture of biblical parables from the gospel according to St. Matthew. It’s a frequently funny, sometimes poignant show, surprisingly fresh with pop-culture references — especially considering it debuted in 1971 — that manages to leave the preaching to the, well, preachers.

All of Godspell’s whopping 10 cast members have an opportunity to shine in this production — and shine they do. The quality of the singing can truly make or break this show, and the strength of the singing, paired with the charm of the exuberant cast, makes for a lively time. In Oxnard’s Petit Playhouse, Godspell is like an intimate discussion between the audience and a group of adults who easily and alternately invoke the spirits of clowns, children and reverent, saddened masses.

It’s tough to explain but, simply said, the camaraderie among the players and between the players and the audience is palpable. There are intimate, funny moments in the show that hinge on the audience seeing and understanding a particular facial expression or movement — and there are a few intimate, sad moments that hinge on the same.

Because there are so many characters and all of them are essentially nameless, all the actors have their work cut out for them in shaping a distinct personality, or several personalities. Each character is nameless, perhaps because each actor plays a handful of roles in the show, so shaping those distinct personalities is an even greater challenge. Excellent direction by Sean Harrington, as well as wonderful choreography by Arryck Adams — so much dancing by so many people in such a tiny space! — makes the show a streamlined, cohesive success.

As the teacher, the man who guides the audience through the parables, Tom Weldon is a kind of delightful, trustworthy narrator. Fans of local community theater may remember Weldon from a recent production of Deathtrap in Ojai, where he portrayed Clifford. Lorraine MacDonald also makes an impression as a bawdy, playful and sometimes goofy siren, complete with a sultry voice and the swaying hips to match. Jessica May is excellent as the most child-like member of the gang, girlish and innocent in her yellow overalls. Amberlee Peterson, a tiny woman with a huge personality, uses facial expressions and vocal tones that really say it all. She is, in a word, a hoot.

Sara Penman and Lori Lee Gordon are similarly hilarious, and both actresses clearly have a knack for making an audience feel that it’s in good hands. Both look and act like consummate pros. Kamahni Huck, who portrays Pontius Pilate at the end of the show, engages in some of the show’s most cardiovascular dancing, and in some of its most somber moments, and does so beautifully. Rudolfo F. Larrazolo inhabits his handful of roles with ease — and with a real glee that makes him fun to watch. Armed with a strong set of pipes and phenomenal comedic style, an actor who simply goes by the name Spanky is a real crowd pleaser. It’s important to note, however, that all of the actors are real crowd pleasers. If they weren’t, Godspell just wouldn’t work.

Because Elite’s version of Godspell has so many cool pop-culture references, it feels a lot less like a production of Hair than it probably did when it debuted. It somehow retains its connection to the 1970s, but is freshened with references to the likes of the Austin Powers movies and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Maybe I was hallucinating, but I am pretty sure there was a bit of choreography straight from the zombie dance in the Thriller video. It was hilarious, well done and just plain great to see.

There are plenty of other pop-culture references, but I don’t want to spoil the fun when it’s more fulfilling to spot them yourself. I will say, however, that one parable presented in a Jerry Springer Show-type fashion was absolutely priceless. Weldon, Adams and Spanky really stole the show with their dead-on performances as slightly trashy southerners, while Penman and Larrazolo were the icing on the cake as the girlfriend and the show’s host. Finally, the gut-busting heckling by the other cast members really provided that Jerry Springer touch.

Another inspired moment was the entire cast’s performance of “Entr’acte,” an instrumental number performed on various ramshackle instruments. It looked and sounded unique, but the best part was when someone in the cast missed a beat, thereby inspiring a tiny ripple of laughter among themselves and the audience. They picked up without missing another beat and the smiles never left their faces.

They were having a good time, and so were we.