Hu-rry, Hu-rry, Hu-rry! Step right up, Step right up!
This month, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is transforming itself into a circus for its production of "Godspell." In the lobby, there'll be carnival games, themed snacks and even a kangaroo for opening night. The Rep's collaboration with 2 Ring Circus lifts the musical off the ground and transforms it into a high-flying extravaganza with added weight and unifying elements to the story.
Regular Rep-goers might remember 2 Ring Circus as the folks behind the incredible aerial elements that took audiences "under the sea" for the theater's production of "The Little Mermaid" in 2015. This time, the circus collaborated with director Donna Drake (who directed The Rep's production of "Mary Poppins" in 2015) to reimagine and breathe new life into "Godspell."
Joshua Dean (2 Ring Circus' White Clown and choreographer) explained: "We started with the original idea of clowns telling the parables and wanted to add more circus elements, like aerialists and acrobats. Ben [Franklin, who is Hula Hooper and choreographer] and I did the first draft, then Donna went through and added a lot of heart and emotional connectivity."
Dean and Franklin both started out in musical theater and found their way into the circus, so their work with Drake to fuse the two into a singular spectacle is a labor of love. "This was a life-changing show for me," Franklin said. "I played Jesus in a performance in 10th grade. I have big emotional ties to it." Franklin said the circus has been "respectful to the original writers, but in the beginning, ["Godspell" composer/lyricist] Stephen Schwartz says, use your imagination, be creative."
This production changes the setting of the play to Birmingham, Ala., in 1968, adding depth to the story. "It was a time of social unrest, racial tension. As a Southerner, I think we were unkind, unloving," Drake said. "The question I wanted to bring to audiences in 2017 is, have we learned our lesson?"
Even with this setting, likely to evoke particular feelings about that time and place, Hakim Rashad McMillan (who plays Jesus) thinks the story is still transcendent: "We're setting it in Birmingham in the '60s, but you can take it to Rome or Sydney and it is relevant wherever you go. Everyone knows the story of Jesus, but what I do find interesting is that you can take away the spiritual aspect of him, strip him down and leave him as a man, and he gives a story of love and community that you can take just about everywhere in the world."
"Godspell" depicts a free-spirited Jesus finding his way to the John Judas Family Circus, down on its luck and on the verge of folding. Judas is played by Michael Cunio, who has gained some national attention for his singing abilities, working with The Roots, Postmodern Jukebox and others. He reassured skeptics who might not have been fans of the original: "A lot of the time, everyone was just sort of jumping into a new game and you felt like 'what are all these hippies doing?' The changes in this show make the story much more engaging."
"Godspell" also brings back to The Rep Amy Jo Jackson (Fortune Teller), who played Ursula in "The Little Mermaid." "The Fortune Teller is earthbound, but she is the connection to the spiritual world," Jackson said. "As the show begins, everyone is very dispirited and downtrodden. I'm there to infuse everyone with philosophical thought, spiritual awakening and a readiness to receive what's coming." Jackson also noted that the show brings a healthy dose of levity and humor through the antics of the circus performers, particularly the puppet show from the Bearded Lady, played by Aymee Garcia, who has done puppeteering work for PBS and Nickelodeon TV shows.
"We've really made strides to give people something that everyone can get behind," Franklin said. "If you loved the original, hopefully you'll love this even more."
Cunio summed things up: "It's Cirque du Soleil meets Barnum & Bailey set to a classic rock soundtrack. It's a ****ing spectacle. Whether you care about musical theater or the Bible, there's never a moment when you're not popping your eyes."
"Godspell" opens Friday, June 2, with circus-themed activities beginning at 6 p.m. and an 8 p.m. curtain time. (At press time, The Rep said it still has a few tickets left for opening night if you want to see that kangaroo.) The show runs through Sunday, June 25. Sign Interpreter Night is Wednesday, June 14. Tickets and more info are available at therep.org.