Maui OnStage’s teen troupe presents Gospel of Matthew with a rock ’n’ roll vibe

Prepare ye for Maui OnStage Teen Stage Productions’ performance of “Godspell,” conceived by John-Michael Tebelak, with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, directed by Alexis Dascoulias, choreographed by Dejah Padon and under the musical direction of Steven Dascoulias. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for children. To purchase tickets, call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com. Jack Grace photo

Alexis Dascoulias, director of the Maui OnStage production of “Godspell,” has helmed the classic 1970s musical on several occasions. That doesn’t include appearing in a New England production where she sang “Day By Day” 25 years ago.

“This is my sixth time directing ‘Godspell,’ “ says Dascoulias. “It is by far my favorite show to be a part of because everyone is part of the team. All the actors get to bring something new and fresh to the party. We talk a lot about what the stories mean to the cast. How do the parables influence our lives? What do the words mean to them individually and as a collective group?”

The all-teen cast will “prepare ye the way . . .” and “. . . sing about love” from Good Friday through Easter Sunday at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.

“Godspell” began as John-Michael Tebelak’s master’s thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University. The original musical production presented the parables of Jesus Christ’s apostles and ministry — from his baptism to the resurrection — as told by modern-day traveling hippies.

Tebelak collaborated with three-time Grammy and Academy Award-winner Stephen Schwartz on the show in 1969 when the two were not much older than the current Maui teen cast. The Carnegie Mellon student cast then staged a 10-performance run at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York City in 1971.

Shortly thereafter, Edgar Lansbury, brother of Angela Lansbury, produced it Off-Broadway, where it ran for five years, before moving to Broadway in 1976. In that new era of stage musicals for and by young people, the rock and pop sounds of the 1960s began to surface in megahits like “Hair,” “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Grease” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which all debuted between 1967 and 1972. The pop hits from those musicals were some of the last to crack the Billboard Top-40 charts until “RENT” came along in 1996 inspiring new interest in Broadway by the children of the baby boomers. Dascoulias’ Easter production of “Godspell” will star the grandchildren of the “flower children.”

At the time of “Godspell’s” debut, Schwartz was just 23 years old and labeled as Broadway’s new wunderkind. The following year he teamed up with Bob Fosse on the Tony Award-winning “Pippin,” but it would be 30 years before Schwartz would hit Broadway gold again, with 2003’s “Wicked.”

Another 23-year-old’s first musical debuted that same year –Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which can be seen live in concert Sunday night on NBC starring John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and Maui’s Alice Cooper as King Herod.

“Superstar,” armed with all the bells and whistles of a rock opera, is significantly different than “Godspell,” which is perhaps why both have rivaled each other for many years with essentially the same premise. If “Superstar” is a rock concert, than “Godspell” is a post-show living room jam session. “Godspell” does not tell the story of Christ — it shares his words, word for word, from the gospel of Matthew with lyrics lifted almost entirely from traditional hymns.

“The music of ‘Godspell’ and the lyrics are timeless. They are memorable, hummable and catchy,” shared Dascoulias. “You will find yourself humming them three days after you experience the show. The parables used in ‘Godspell’ remind us to be good people at our core — what more do we need in life?”

I asked Dascoulias what draws her to “Godspell” time and time again.

“For many of the same reasons people still read the Bible 2,000-plus years later,” she answered. “The parables of the book of Matthew are timeless. This is not about religion or Christianity. It is about loving your neighbor and always treating others as you would have them treat you.”

When Maui OnStage Youth Theater began in 2013, it was designed for young children. I asked how this new teen company came about.

“Maui OnStage’s teen company morphed from our youth programs. Many of our teens and their parents wanted something for the older group. There are several ‘Godspell’ cast members who were in ‘The Story of Orange,’ ‘James and the Giant Peach’ or ‘Peter Pan’ when they were 10 or 11. Now they are 13, 14, 15 and older, and are looking for the next level of theater experience,” she explained. “This is another step to bridging youth theater to our full main stage productions — plus so many of these teens don’t have theater programs in their schools. Maui OnStage wants to help fill the gap.”

I wondered if these millennials had ever heard of the 47-year-old rock musical about the teachings of Jesus.

“I have to admit that I was surprised at how many of this teen cast did not know the songs. They knew their parents knew the show, but these teens didn’t have a personal previous relationship with the material. In some ways that made it challenging, but in other ways it made it more fun. We started with a blank canvas. No one had any pre-conceived notions of how they wanted to sound. We got to create the songs from scratch, which has resulted in a few surprises,” she shared.

One new and fresh addition to the party is casting a female, Rory Delaney, as Judas opposite Jeremiah Webb’s Jesus.

“She’s fantastic,” says Dascoulias. 

What makes “Godspell” unique and truly a product of its era is that it does not require costumes, props or even a set. You could conceivably produce it in a garage with the entire cast in jeans and T-shirts and it would still entertain. Dascoulias expounded on that.

” ‘Godspell’ doesn’t need a lot. The music and the stories serve as a fantastic base for the production. This cast has brought all the set pieces, costumes and props to the party, so to speak. When you walk into the theater Easter weekend, the Iao stage is going to look like any other weekday when you walk in and we are building sets. There’s a lot going on, and you won’t know what is set decoration or what is a prop. ‘Godspell’ is about the stories — it doesn’t need a concept. The stories are what we want to share and what the audience wants to experience,” clarified Dascoulias.

I asked what she hoped patrons and families will take away from “Godspell” at Easter.

“That’s a really big question with a simple answer,” she said. “We as a cast and crew hope that families take away that we are all here sharing the same land and the same space and the same experiences. If we all held hands and helped each other, like the Good Samaritan, our shared lives here would be joyous and loving and supportive. We all have our differences, but if we treat each other as we want to be treated, those differences would seem less significant and our shared goal of celebrating life would be magnified.”