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“Prepare Ye”–Updated musical arrangements and script ,“All for the Best” in Cain Park’s GODSPELL

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)


The story goes that in 1970, while attending college in Pittsburgh, John-Michael Tebelak went to church on Easter Sunday.  A theology student before he decided he wanted to be a theatrical director, he found the service to be devoid of feeling.

Afterward, the long-haired Tebelak was stopped by a policeman and searched for drugs.  (Remember, this was the era of student protests, hippies, draft card burning, and “dangerous” peaceniks.)   Tebelak confided that this experience provided him the inspiration for GODSPELL, which he developed as a series of parables, mostly based on the “Gospel of Matthew.” He produced the show as his senior project at Carnegie Mellon University.

John Michael left school without graduating.  The show was eventually staged at the off-Broadway Cafe La Mama Theatre.  A producer saw the production and said he would finance it if it had a new score.

Enter Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the songs in 5 weeks.  (The only tune remaining from the original production is “By My Side”). The newly conceived show opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971.  Tebelak was 22 years of age!  GODSPELL then moved onto Broadway where it ran for 2,124 performances.  Hundreds of professional and amateur productions of the show continue to be done, making it one of the most produced scripts.

Tebelak was a Berea product.  As related by Bill Allman, the former producing director of Berea Summer Theatre, “John-Michael cut his theatrical teeth at Berea Summer Theatre where he acted, designed scenery and directed.  In 1980 he returned to his roots when he directed a revival production of GODSPELL.”

The show’s other connection to the area is that in August of 1971, before it became a mega-hit, GODSPELL was produced at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, the predecessor to Great Lakes Theatre, which, at the time was housed in Lakewood High School’s auditorium.  The show’s director was non-other than Tebelak.

The show is not without controversy.  It has been called “blasphemous.”  Religious leaders have stated, “Surely no Christian who believes the Bible would approve of the perversion of GODSPELL.”  The Wexford Pennsylvania School Board banned a production of it after “complaints about its religious message.”

Any director of GODSPELL has a number of choices to make.  First, there is no traditional script.  There is a score and no stage directions.  It has been done as a series of segments in which comic characters are the center of attention.  It was staged as children in a Sunday school class.  It has been done as a religious sermon in a church setting.  It has been done as a dream sequence.  It has been staged as a circus.

Another issue is the tone of the piece.  Should the production center on the religious message, forsaking the humor, or take Tebelak to heart and make this a production of joy?

Cain Park’s GODSPELL, under the co-direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz and Joanna May Hunkins, takes a literal approach.  Though there have been new and interesting musical arrangements, and the language and nonverbal gestures have been brought up to date, Tebelak’s message of elation, with preaching overtones, is present.

The staging is creative.  The choreography by Katie Nabors Strong is inventive and well executed.  The singing is exceedingly strong.  The solos well done and the choral sounds nicely blended.  There is a nice spontaneity to the spoken lines and interactions.  The humor is well timed, the dramatic scenes clearly developed.

Jordan Cooper’s band plays well, but at times gets a little too exuberant and drowns out the singers.   It’s difficult to hear well in the open sided venue to start with, so the musical overplaying rather than underscoring often blocked out song meanings.’’

The directors have chosen to start the production with speeches by various philosophers, followed by “Tower of Babble,” thus setting a preaching tone.  Many productions simply start with “Prepare Ye.”   (My preference is for the latter approach, which gives an immediate uplifting concept.)  The director’s have chosen to included the oft omitted “[We can build a] Beautiful City,” which many consider Schwartz’s most enthralling composition. (I’m on board with that choice.)

The inclusion of a Pictionary and charades segment got the audience involved in the action.

The cast is universally strong.  Standouts are Scott Esposito, whose Judas was well developed and became the fulcrum for the production, Jade McGee who sparkles on stage, and Douglas F. Bailey II, who has a special talent for comedy.

Warren E. Franklin III, as Jesus, displayed a strong singing voice and excellent dancing skills, but failed to develop a charismatic Jesus.  His lines were often lost due to rapid delivery.

Highlight songs were “All Good Gifts” (Ellis C. Dawson III), “Light of the World” (Bailey), “By My Side” (Treva Offutt), “Beautiful City” (Franklin), and “We Beseech Thee” (Eric Fancher).

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Cain Park’s GODSPELL is a creatively conceived and generally well performed production which will keep the audience rocking and laughing, while imparting the philosophical message of the “Book of Mathew.”  You don’t have to be a believer to be entertained by the high spirited songs and the clever staging.  “We Beseech Thee,”—go, see, enjoy—“You’ll Learn Your Lesson Well!” 

(Thanks to John Nolan, theatre buff extraordinaire and a member of the 1980 Berea Summer Theatre “GODSPELL” cast, for background material used in this review.  His contributions were also used several years ago in writing another review of “Godspell.”)

The show runs through  June 28, 2015 in the Alma Theatre in Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park.   For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to