Stage praise: Chicago southsider Matt Raftery leading new run of 'Godspell' opening this week at Marriott Theatre

2014-06-05T00:00:00Z Stage praise: Chicago southsider Matt Raftery leading new run of 'Godspell' opening this week at Marriott TheatreBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

While completing a two-month run of the musical "Cats" at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Ill., actor Brian Bohr was faced with a two-week overlap for the start of rehearsals for the stage space's next production of "Godspell," which features him playing the lead as Jesus.

In "Cats," he was cast as Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat, who bemused audiences by buzzing around the stage in clowning attire while riding a scooter.

"It was a lot to keep up with doing both at the same time," Bohr explained last week during a break in rehearsal.

"During the two-week overlap, I had to make sure I didn't step on stage in my mindset of being Jesus and while rehearsing in 'Godspell,' I had to remember not to act like a cat."

As a young, hard-working actor from Wheaton, Ill. who is blessed with staying consistently busy with stage projects, Bohr said it wasn't unusual to be juggling "dual duties."

"What was different for me this time is I've never had two productions going at the same time when I was learning roles and both of the roles are such principal characters," he said.

This new Chicagoland premiere of the Broadway revival of "Godspell," started audience previews this week and opens June 11 to run through Aug. 10 .

"Godspell" was originally conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of "Wicked" and "Pippin."

The production is directed and choreographed by Matt Raftery, who originally hails from Park Forest, Ill. and promises this stage story delivers a fresh, organic, intimate production, literally "illustrating" the parables of the New Testament and bringing its lessons to life on the Marriott stage. The musical also features the recent Broadway arrangements and orchestrations delivered under the musical direction of Ryan T. Nelson.

"My idea for this staging has the cast treating the performance space like a giant canvas to bring these life lessons alive to the audience with imagination and music," Raftery said.

The musical highlights song hits like "Day By Day," "Light of The World," "Turn Back, O Man" and "By My Side."

For Bohr, he said his favorite numbers are "All Good Gifts" and "Oh Bless the Lord."

"My favorite moment in the show is when I know that all of the people are ready to follow the lead of Jesus," he said.

"It's a very special turning point."

Bohr is also excited about the set design created by Tom Ryan, which he says includes a large focal point tree and grass on stage.

Raftery said once the cast gathered for the first of the rehearsals, he included all of the actors and actresses as part of the process for creating what he describes as the art landscape of the scenic design.

"We gave the cast paint and brushes and let them design what colors and messages surround them and the audience for this production," Raftery said.

"It also served as an important bonding activity for the cast."

In addition to Bohr, "Godspell" also stars Devin DeSantis as Judas/John the Baptist, along with Lillie Cummings, Elizabeth Lanza, Nate Lewellyn, Christine Mild, Eliza Palasz, Samantha Pauly, Zachary Piser and Tom Vendafreddo.

The rest of the "Godspell" production team is led by the Marriott Theatre's Lead Artistic Director Aaron Thielen, with costume coordination by Erin Wuorenma, lighting design by Jesse Klug, sound design by Bob Gilmartin and properties by Sally Weiss. The Marriott Theatre Orchestra is conducted by Musical Supervisor Patti Garwood.

"There's a lot of scenic symbolism that surrounds the characters, all set in an outdoor space with both wooden and chain link fences," Bohr explained.

The visual platform combined with the musical journey of the scenes both inspire and energize the audience, Raftery said.

When it first opened off Broadway on May 17, 1971, it was hailed as a spiritual, contemporary masterpiece, which was the same critical response the 2011 revival received when it played on Broadway from Oct. 13, 2011, to June 24, 2012. Structured as a musical woven through a series of parables, mostly based on the Gospel of Matthew, as well as the Gospel of Luke, it uses modern music and lyrics to contrast traditional hymns to conclude with the passion of Christ.

"For anyone who is age 30 and older, this is a score they are familiar with," Raftery said.

"I can remember having this musical on an LP record when I was growing up and nearly wearing it out because I played it over and over."

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