Gingerbread houses charming, fun ‘Godspell’

By Kent Mancuso

Two weeks ago Astoria Performing Art Center mounted the first production to bring in the spring, “Nunsense,” the raucous musical about a group of Catholic nuns, the Little Sisters of Hoboken. As I commented in my review, irreverence toward members of religious orders, if done in good taste, is quite acceptable — which actually sums up their delightful production.

Well, the Gingerbread Players at St. Luke’s Church in Forest Hills went a powerful step further. They elevated “tasteful irreverence” to “raucous mysticism,” moving their grand production of “Godspell” out from the church hall, where they do their shows generally, and presented it directly inside the church itself. What’s more, this audacious, loud, often-bawdy retelling of the Gospel of St. Matthew makes one howl out loud, although one then realizes that this is a play about — indeed starring — Jesus Christ.

But laughter is irrepressible given this comic retelling of Christ’s parables, focusing on his Sermon on the Mount, given the “joy” that this sermon is all about, the “Good News” of his religious philosophy. And in the hands of this talented bunch of singing actors, enriching their roles with delightfully funny interplay and colorful “paste-together” costumes, the joy and enthusiasm was almost palpable.

At the core of this piece is its unique style of retelling the gospel message. The actors can be thought of as flower-children of the ‘70s or perhaps more like clown-like troopers who in years past traveled across the country to entertain rural towns — much as Christ and his apostles traveled across the Holy Land to spread the joy of his message.

The actors react with joy and awe as Christ, actor Scot Williams, relates his parables. The bonding of the “disciples,” performed by the rest of the cast — Jamaal Wilson, Andrew Dinan, Barbara Glick, Dawn Sullivan Toto, Stephanie Williams, Trey Sandusky, David Friedman, Valette Ruppart and Tamara Ruppart — is conveyed with such energy that the audience is drawn into the message, almost seduced by their zeal — and of course, the music.

With each parable, we hear another of Stephen Schwartz’s great tunes, tunes that have become a part of American culture since the show first opened 30 years ago. Perhaps most famous are “Long Live God” and “Day by Day,” but the gentle, mystic beauty of “All Good Gifts” the foot-stomping “We Beseech Thee” and the lusty “Turn Back, O Man” are all unforgettable — and generally well sung in this production.

The real test of any production of “Godspell” is the moment of transition toward the devastating finale — the Last Supper, the kiss of peace among the disciples, and the betrayal. Suddenly the zeal and joy turn to sadness and even horror, but all in God’s own plan for salvation. This production succeeds bravely in capturing the audience within the “spell” of the Good Friday message. Director Stephen Banci gives his merry troop of players enough leeway to fill the first part of the musical with their own comic improvisations, but reels them in for the powerful finale.

Music director Bart Haggerty plays the score with as much tender loving care as if he had composed it himself. The choreography by Jamaal Wilson, who played Judas in the cast, was elegant, simple, and energetic. All of which combined to make this a worthy successor to Beari Productions fine mounting of this piece in the Middle Village theater about three years ago, a production that — to this day — left me rather speechless because of the amazing talents of its cast.

There are two more performances left, a wonderful way to get into the mood for the approaching Easter season: Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. The Gingerbread Players are located at St. Luke’s Church, 85 Greenway South, Forest Hills, a short walk from Queens Boulevard — from the Continental Avenue stop on the IND line or the Forest Hills stop on the Long Island Railroad. Call 718-268-6021, although the phone message is not particularly helpful for theatergoers.

Since last week, when I announced all the forthcoming spring productions I knew about, friends have handed me a flyer from Doulaston’s Theatre à la Carte announcing its forthcoming spring production of “Send Me No Flowers.” If you are thinking the Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie, you are right — although this is the original Broadway play. The cast includes several names I do not know, but also has enough familiar names to put an anticipatory smile on my face. Dates are for the weekends of April 25, May 2 and May 9. Call 718-631-4092.

I have also seen a flyer announcing a special presentation of the Passion Play, to be done by St. Mary’s Drama Guild, a mighty undertaking, which — considering the quality output from this group over the past few years in the hands Lindo Meli — should be quite special. There are only two performances, Saturday, April 12, at 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m. And the admission is free. How can you miss? Call 718-672-4848.

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