MATTHEWS — It’s been a long wait for the return of live theater, but the time has finally come. This June, audiences will get to experience a Matthews Playhouse show like never before when “Godspell” is performed outdoors and under the stars at Stumptown Park.
“It’s a great way of easing back into the community,” said John West, who is part of the ensemble cast. “It will be fun. It will be unique and I think folks are going to have a good time because it’s a really talented cast, so I’m excited for what we have to offer.”
“Godspell” will be held from June 4 to 13 in the park located at 120 S. Trade St. Tickets cost $10 and are sold in socially distanced pods of two to four people. Attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs.
According to the Matthews Playhouse website, “Godspell” was the first major musical theater offering from three-time Grammy and Academy Award-winner Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Children of Eden”), and it took the world by storm. Led by the international hit, "Day by Day," “Godspell” features a parade of beloved songs, including "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," "Learn Your Lessons Well," "All for the Best," "All Good Gifts," "Turn Back, O Man" and "By My Side."
In the musical, a small group of people help Jesus Christ tell different parables by using a variety of games, storytelling techniques and hefty doses of comic timing. An eclectic blend of songs, ranging in style from pop to vaudeville, is employed as the story of Jesus' life dances across the stage. Dissolving hauntingly into the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, Jesus' messages of kindness, tolerance and love come vibrantly to life.
Director June Bayless said she chose “Godspell” for the playhouse’s first full in-person production since the pandemic because it requires a small cast and minimal to no costume changes. Although she has directed the musical before, she said COVID-19 restrictions created new challenges, such as masked and socially distanced rehearsals, no sharing of microphones and props needing to be wiped down after each use.
Matthews Playhouse used PPE money to purchase microphones and an outdoor sound system for the upcoming show. Bayless, who is also the playhouse’s founder, said she wants to give the audience the high-quality, welcome-back performance they’ve all been longing for.
“We’re such an asset to the community. We mean so much to so many people in the area,” she said. “Matthews has embraced us through the years. The town includes us in everything and when they advertise that the town is a great place to live, we’re a big part of that.”
Indoor gathering restrictions prohibited Matthews Playhouse from having audiences at The Fullwood Theatre, so the organization entertained crowds with virtual shows and a small outdoor play festival instead. They also hosted summer camps and year-long classes for children at reduced capacity.
While the virtual events were a good substitute, Administrative Manager Marie-Michele Darcy said nothing compares to a live, in-person production.
“It feels really good to get back to doing what we’re really supposed to do with theater,” Darcy said. “Theater is something that is inherently relational with live audiences that the audience feeds off of and the cast feeds off of.”
For most in the audience, “Godspell” will be their first live show experience since the pandemic and West is excited to be a part that. West said he’s missed going to the theater just as much he missed performing in theater with audience interaction and participation.
West has been with Matthews Playhouse since “Scrooge” in 1996. He’s also played notable roles in “White Christmas” (2012) and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (2017).
“I miss the energy of being around other performers and sharing in the communal experience of putting together a production,” West said. “For people who love doing theater, you really miss the camaraderie of doing theater.”
Iris DeWitt, also in the ensemble cast, has missed the creative and collaborate space theater provides. She thinks the pandemic reminded everyone how important the arts are not only culturally and educationally, but also as a way to bring people together.
“It has definitely been such a heartwarming experience to be back in person,” DeWitt said. “This last year has certainly been tough for us thespians.”
“Godspell” will be DeWitt’s third show with Matthews Playhouse after “Bonnie & Clyde” (2018) and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (2019). She describes the upcoming production as “a modern yet classic take on Christian values set to a rock gospel soundtrack.”
“We’re just going to be on stage just having an absolute blast and we hope the audience has a blast watching and experiencing the show with us,” DeWitt said.