LOS ANGELES, Aug. 23, 2015—”Godspeed: A Rock Opera” saw a packed house on its second night at the historic El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif. Directed and choreographed by industry veteran Jeffrey Polk, it has a six-piece live progressive rock band and 16 singers and dancers who bring the scriptures to life. The 300-seat venue was well suited to the launch of this event, which was over 25 years in the making.
Written, co-produced, and scored by Sammy Oriti, “Godspeed: A Rock Opera” moves the audience from Creation to the Cross, to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ through the vehicle of rock music. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Galpin Ford, Ambisonic Sound Technologies and Arte Divine, as well as executive producers and philanthropists Richard and Esther Stewart, the show’s premiere and the events associated with the rock opera have been a success.
Originally written about the New Testament and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the rock opera has been expanded to include Creation, Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary.
The opening act of Creation was artfully rendered through a spectacular light show that was a feast for the eyes. Along with the rousing narration straight from the Bible, the entire act set the correct tone of expectancy and prescience.
The opera then moved into the Adam and Eve portion with the ballad “Flesh of My Flesh.” Sung with appropriate wonder and freshness by Lyle Mackston (Adam), this moving rendition laid the framework for the beauty and unity of God’s design, soon to be destroyed by the allure of forbidden fruit and disobedience.
Terrance Spencer as the Serpent is a stand-out talent. Spencer’s performance moved the story to a different level; the segue from the eating of the forbidden fruit to banishment and sin was given over to narration, which only helped the impact of the act and Spencer’s performance.
A score was used to undergird the narration of Jesus’ birth and served to soften the momentum a bit. The build returned with “In My Arms,” impressively sung and acted by Shayna Gabrielle (Virgin Mary).
The ensemble number “Repent” went well beyond “GodSpell’s” “Prepare Ye The Way” in rousing powerful emotions of joy and delight at the hope and deliverance of sins forgiven, while serving as a seamless transition into Jesus’ baptism and the start of his ministry. The energy from this piece was powerful and palpable, without any derivative elements that would evoke the aforementioned “GodSpell” or “Jesus Christ Superstar.” John Bisaha (Jesus) and Frank Lawson (John the Baptist) are a revelation and set the standard for what these roles should embody. Future productions will have big shoes to fill when casting these parts.
Oriti and his team did a top-notch job in weaving a score and songs that captured the audience and carried them along. There were lots of clapping, toe and finger tapping and bobbing of heads, a sure sign that the music is resonating and taking shape in ears and hearts. There were actual loud cheers from the audience during “If You Are,” when Jesus expelled Satan from his presence after enduring the Temptation.
Dionne Gipson (Sinful Woman) closed out Act One with “He Must Be From Heaven,” expressing with powerful emotion and dynamic rifts the joy of being spared from a death sentence, as Jesus admonishes her to go and sin no more.
Act Two came off a bit rushed, as we moved from the Last Supper to the Midnight trial before the Sanhedrin. “Die For Israel” was the piece that was prominent and memorable, as the Pharisees sang of the promise of Israel, witnessing that Jesus would be the Savior of the world.
“Psalm 23” seemed out of sync in the midst of what was a competently weaved song set. Crafting a song based on Psalm 22 might have been a more apt choice that merged into the weight of Jesus’ struggle and sacrifice. A reprise of “In My Arms” would have also fit well in this Act Two as we see the Virgin Mary at the cross witnessing the death of her son and his dead body’s removal from the cross.
Oriti introduced his work with delight and said the 27-year vision for “GodSpeed” was “ever evolving,” as represented by the re-crafted Act One. As the rock opera grows, and hopefully garners more funding, here are the areas that could benefit from this evolution:
- The glaring gap in the production was in costume design. While the character costumes for John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees were inspired, there was not much distinction between the character costumes of Jesus, angels, shepherds and disciples. The Pharisees’ dress was the most distinctive and imaginative of the costume choices. The three actors were dressed like street thugs, with zippered leather jackets, chucks and rabbinical scarves draped around their necks.
- The interesting choice to clothe Adam and Eve in baggy white tunics did not resonate at all. Understandably the director may not have wanted to offend a mostly Christian audience with obvious nudity, but with the stellar job done with the lighting, the illusion could have been achieved without actual nudity being shown. Had more attention and money been poured into the costumes, the visuals would have matched the majestic nature of the music.
- The score used to represent Christ’s birth faltered and left what felt like dead space in the midst of a mostly seamless musical rendition. A ballad or an ensemble piece could have carried the moment with more weight and reverence, where music alone seemed insufficient.
- From the first note of “Flesh of My Flesh,” it was apparent that this rock opera was begging for a larger venue. The inconsistencies and gaps in the sound also made this apparent; a bigger stage where the singer’s voices could ring out clearly and fill the room would have done the entire rock opera justice.
- “He’s Alive,” the big Hallelujah finale, evoked the praise and wonder of a resurrection, but could have expressed more power. The closing number should have had as much, if not more, impact as “Repent,” but in comparison to that piece the feeling was more anti-climactic than high note.
With a few more powerful ballads, additions to the ensemble and more time padded into Act Two to take away the rushed feel, the well-grounded Biblical stories would take on more fullness. All in all, this first proof of concept for “GodSpeed: A Rock Opera” came off quite well, and the work deserves to be seen and heard by a wider audience. With better funding and a bigger budget, this already lofty work would have an even greater trajectory.
Oriti and his team are looking to mount another production of the rock opera in November, with a location to be decided. Video footage and highlights of the production can be seen on the GodSpeed: A Rock Opera website. A free download of the production’s soundtrack is available on the website for a limited time.
“GodSpeed” has its final performance at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets can be purchased through the production’s website.