For its final production of the school year, Durango High School Troupe 1096 is singing to the rafters with “Godspell.”
First debuted on Broadway in 1971, the rock opera is based on the Gospel of St. Matthew and re-enacts familiar parables while following the last days of Jesus Christ.
The DHS version keeps the rock-opera feel with live drums and a keyboard. In stark contrast to the troupe’s last show, “The Crucible,” “Godspell” is loud and bright and full of hope, even in the face of a story that, Director Benjamin Mattson said, gets pretty wrenching by the end.
A cool twist for this production is that the roles of Jesus and Judas switch between two actors – juniors Braden Helfrich and Colson Parker – for every performance throughout the show’s two-week run.
For Helfrich and Parker, the dual roles gave them not only the literal challenge of being responsible for the tremendous amount of song lyrics, dialogue and choreography they had to memorize, they also found themselves grappling with the dueling natures of Jesus and Judas.
“It was definitely challenging, especially because people know Jesus as the savior and Judas as the betrayer, and so there’s this weird balancing of how do you play each character,” Parker said.
It was the balancing of the two and the changing up of roles that make the show fun, Helfrich said.
“I think depending on who’s playing Jesus and Judas, it just makes them two completely different shows,” he said. “It’s really neat, just the different way that we portray the characters.”
For Mattson, there were two reasons he decided to swap the casting of Jesus and Judas; the first being the demanding role of Jesus.
“Jesus sings so much in the show, and Judas has his moments, too, but vocally, it’s not as taxing,” he said. “We only have two weekends to perform the show, and I wanted to fit in as many shows as possible, so we’re doing eight shows in two weeks.
“For high school students, to throw this many shows at them, I thought that it just would help them remain vocally healthy.”
The second reason for the swap is much bigger.
“Conceptually, I think it’s amazing for them and their acting process,” Mattson said. “When you play a role, you understand the perspective of your character, you get in their head, you rationalize their choices and their behavior and who they are as a person. And to be able to do that for the protagonist and antagonist, especially in something like this, adds so much depth and clarity to what that relationship is.”
The depth of the show was something that Helfrich had not really expected at the beginning, and he said he has taken away some valuable life lessons – something he thinks the audience will as well.
“When I was coming to the show, I definitely expected it to be just reading off some parables and singing some songs about it. It was just completely religious-based, so you go in expecting a show about God,” Helfrich said. “But you come out of it with a lot more than that. It’s not just a show about God; it just connects to what we go through on a day-by-day basis. It has such a strong message with each parable that’s read. It’s about community and loving each other and just being kind.”
Parker agreed, adding that it’s the lessons about love and community that will stick with you long after the performance is over.
“Whether you’re religious or not, everyone can come to the show and still walk away with something that makes them feel like they can make a difference or build a better community or strengthen relationships,” he said. “It can be about building a community with people, learning to love others – a lot of really cool fundamental things that if everyone believed, humanity would be such a better place.”
And as with “The Crucible,” Mattson sees “Godspell” as a classic show with a message that is as timely as ever.
“I almost can’t think of a play that’s more important right now to remind ourselves about compassion and connection,” he said. “To be taken through the story of a man who loved everyone, not just the people who loved him back, I think that is something we don’t always think about or aren’t cognizant of.
“The true test is finding the humanity to love those you don’t agree with, or those you see as your enemy.”