Updated 'Godspell' isn't clowning around onstage

| Wednesday, April 15, 2009

As it embarks on its fifth production of "Godspell," Pittsburgh Musical Theater is taking a new approach.

Rejecting the original 1971 off-Broadway concept as outmoded, Pittsburgh Musical Theater founding director Ken Gargaro is directing the production that opens tonight to appeal to a new generation of theatergoers.

"In this post-9/11 era, clowning and flower children is not the way to turn religion on its ear," Gargaro says. "I think older folks get it. But kids 15 to 25 don't get the clowning."

Instead, Gargaro is setting his production in urban settings such as a back-street alley or in front of the distressed facade of the New York Stock Exchange.

He envisions the ensemble as a group of collegiate preppies on an assignment to figure out what's wrong with Western civilization.

"Jesus is this guy they think is cool. He gradually brings them into the community of believers. That's the pathway back from the crises of morality we just had," Gargaro says.

Appearing as Jesus is former Sewickley resident Peter Matthew Smith, who is a New York-based actor who has appeared on Broadway in the musicals "Cry-Baby," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Hairspray," "Mamma Mia!" and "Rent."

It's the fourth time Smith has played Jesus in "Godspell." He first played the part at Quaker Valley High School when he was a 15-year-old sophomore.

"Now I'm 31 and actually Jesus's age, roughly," Smith says.

He thinks repetition and maturing has changed his understanding of and approach to the role.

"The first few times, I was a young actor ... I didn't understand. I just knew a nice way of saying things," Smith says. "What Jesus was saying is that you need to hear every word. Now I'm a pro-active teacher, saying, 'Please listen, your life will be better.'"

This time, Smith adds, his Jesus is more human and a little more frustrated.

"When he gets mad, he gets really mad. I'm going to have more biting words a little earlier on. ... It's not going to be as easy from the beginning."

It's a role he looks forward to playing once again.

"It's great when you are speaking and know that every single person in the cast and in the audience is hanging on every word and learning those lessons again," he says.

Additional Information:


Produced by : Pittsburgh Musical Theater

When : Through April 26. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Admission : $10-$39.50; $10-$20 for children

Where : Byham Theater, Downtown.

Details : 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org

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