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Foothills Playhouse Kicks Off New Era with Divine "Godspell"

By Paul Hyde/The Anderson Observer

Easley's Foothills Playhouse is beginning a bright new era with a spirited production of "Godspell."

This high-octane account of Stephen Schwartz's 1971 musical spotlights a talented young local cast with bountiful vocal power. 

The show, with a pop-rock score, is a contemporary retelling of parables from the Gospels, concluding with scenes from the Last Supper and Crucifixion.Drew Whitley, foreground, is featured as Jesus in "Godspell," continuing through Oct. 21 at Easley's Foothills Playhouse. (Photo Credit: Escobar Photography)

The 12-member ensemble, under the creative direction of Noah Taylor, gleefully embraces the show's over-the-top thrust.

Taylor's joyfully rambunctious staging often boasts the freewheeling exuberance of improv or sketch comedy.

Taylor's actors offer self-assured, committed performances. They occasionally veer off script to toss in local references, some of which got the biggest laughs at Friday's opening night.

This production marks the first show under the playhouse's new executive artistic director, Will Ragland, who hopes to revive the theater's fortunes after a recent period of declining attendance.

Ragland designed the excellent set for "Godspell"-- an abandoned cotton mill, in keeping with the musical's theme of hope in a time of decay and uncertainty.

"Godspell" has always been iconoclastic. Book writer John-Michael Tebelak provides a zippy modern take on familiar biblical stories. The irreverence has a reverent purpose, underscoring that Jesus' ideas, focusing on love rather than money, are ever-young, always challenging and always revolutionary. (An improvised reference to Occupy Easley drives the point home.) 

The show is episodic, exploring one parable after another, with Jesus serving as teacher, and the rest of the ensemble portraying disciples and characters in the stories.

It's remarkable to recall that Schwartz was only in his early 20s when he wrote the music and lyrics for "Godspell" and the equally experimental "Pippin." ("Wicked," his brilliant if more conventional Broadway blockbuster, was 30 years in the future.)

Schwartz's songs hold up well, and this cast delivers them with zest.

When the 12 voices combine as an ensemble, the sound is full and rich.

As Jesus, Drew Whitley balances a commanding presence (he's taller than the rest of the cast) with a gentle voice. He applies honeyed vocals to "Save the People" and but pointedly declaims "Alas For You."

Austin Smith, as Judas and John the Baptist, is nimble in action and voice, offering a sweetly intoned "On the Willows."

Kellsey Vickers provides a lovely account of "Day By Day," one of the show's big hits. Hannah Morton brings a powerhouse voice to "Turn Back, O Man."

Ben Otto Sunderman delivers "We Beseech Thee" with gusto.

Cristin A. Brown sings a warm "By My Side" against the shimmering harmonies of the ensemble.

Also vocally strong are Drew Kenyon ("All Good Gifts") and Nathan Oliver ("Light of the World").

Maggie McNeil and Sims Hall soar on, respectively, "Bless the Lord" and "Learn Your Lessons Well." 

Solid contributions are also offered by Ryvers Martin and Bradley Miller.

Julia Miller and Joshua C. Morton are responsible for the superb musical preparation. Ashley Bingham created the energetic dances.

This production uses recorded music, but the sound is good -- and not too soft in volume. (A rock musical has got to rock.)

This dynamic "Godspell" continues through Oct. 21. For tickets, call 864-855-1817 or visit the website

And don't forget to check out the rest of the Foothills Playhouse season: "Elf Jr.: The Musical" (Nov. 30-Dec. 16), "Steel Magnolias" (Feb. 8-24), "Charlotte's Web" (March 29-April 14), "Willy Wonka" (May 31-June 16) and "9 to 5" (July 26-Aug. 18).

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about the arts for the Observer. Write to him at Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

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