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An updated 'Godspell' comes to Tampa's Straz Center

“We’re trying to make the show about a community and friendship,” says Craig Sculli, foreground, who plays Jesus in the Straz Center show.

Straz Center for the Performing Arts

“We’re trying to make the show about a community and friendship,” says Craig Sculli, foreground, who plays Jesus in the Straz Center show.

BY JOHN FLEMING

Times Performing Arts Critic

Recently, Craig Sculli played Pontius Pilate in a tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Now he's playing Jesus in Godspell in the cabaret series at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

"I'm going full circle,'' Sculli says. "I go from crucifying Christ to being him.''

Sculli draws inspiration from his Superstar cast mate, Ted Neeley, the perennial Jesus, who has played the role many times since starring in the 1973 movie of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical.

"I'm trying to find the qualities of this man that people have identified with for 2,000 years, regardless of their religious backgrounds,'' he says.

Godspell, which opened off Broadway in 1971, was the first big hit for Stephen Schwartz, who also wrote the music and lyrics about 30 years later for Wicked, the blockbuster musical that is playing around the corner from the Jaeb in Straz's Morsani Hall this month. "You see the beginnings of a lot of his musical ideas in Godspell,'' Sculli says. "It's nice to see where a composer started and where he ends.''

Godspell is often lumped in together with Jesus Christ Superstar, which came along around the same time, but they're different types of musicals. "I think the biggest difference is that Superstar is a rock opera, whereas Godspell and Schwartz's music is much lighter,'' Sculli says.

Schwartz got involved with Godspell after its initial production by the late John-Michael Tebelak, who did the show as his master's thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Tebelak, who had thought of becoming an Episcopal minister before going into theater, was moved to write the show after attending an Easter service that he found wanting. The form of his book more or less follows the Episcopal communion service, and lyrics for many of the songs in the score come from the Episcopal hymnal. Much of the text is from St. Matthew's Gospel.

Long a favorite of schools and church groups, Godspell is best known for the song Day by Day, which was a hit single for original cast member Robin Lamont in the summer of 1972 (Alison Burns sings it in the Jaeb production). Beautiful City is another familiar song, though Schwartz wrote it later for the 1973 movie, starring Victor Garber as Jesus in a Superman shirt, then updated it in 1993 after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

Godspell has an exceedingly loose structure, and leaves a lot of decisions up to the director, such as whether or not to use Beautiful City and where to place it in the show. Director Rick Criswell puts it near the end of the second act in the Jaeb production, which is set in a warehouse. It has a cast of six actors and a four-piece band.

"This production incorporates new feelings to a lot of the moments,'' Sculli says. "Hopefully, that will make it enjoyable for people who know the show, that it's not the same old Godspell.''

Sculli, 32, raised Catholic in Connecticut, doesn't seem too daunted by the prospect of playing Jesus eight shows a week for four months.

"It is a trip. You're dealing with some heavy stuff. But we're trying to make the show about a community and friendship. I think the story of Jesus and the apostles, his friends, is so much about human interaction that I try to keep it as grounded as I can and let people make up their own interpretation of how he really was.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

>> If you go

Godspell

The Stephen Schwartz musical opens Friday and runs through May 16 at the Jaeb Theater of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. $31.50. The 7:30 p.m. preview today is a benefit for Metropolitan Ministries. $19.50. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

An updated 'Godspell' comes to Tampa's Straz Center 02/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 3:30am]

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