divine spell has been one of the most produced shows since its debut in 1972 and its film adaptation the following year. The 2011 Broadway revival book and score bring bolder, more complex arrangements to classic Stephen Schwartz songs, requiring high energy, creativity and unhindered joy – a recipe this cast is perfecting under the direction by Scott Heine.
The setting is a cafe – the crossroads of many communities. A live band performs before the show and immediately sets the tone. Some members of the ensemble are already on stage and dressed like ordinary people. There is no fourth wall — we are already part of the community. After the pre-show announcements, the cast argues with different philosophies in the intentionally chaotic song “Tower of Babel.” Josh Carias as Jean-Baptiste (the barista) breaks up the chaos with “Prepare Ye” in a gripping baritone, baptizing customers one by one as the stage is cleared of tables and chairs and set up with strategic boxes and other objects.
The next person to arrive is Kelly Snow as Jesus. His portrayal was down to earth and compassionate, reminding the audience that Jesus was a real person who walked among us. Throughout the show, Snow’s versatile voice navigated the multiple styles of revival arrangements.
Most of the productions of divine spell use a physical representation of the conversion, such as a flower, which is given to each actor when “Save the People”. Director Scott Heine instead stages the conversions as individual moments throughout the show. Each character’s moment of acceptance is illustrated by Jesus placing a red scarf around his wrist. Separating them into individual moments is an important distinction, showing each character’s personal decision to accept and follow Christ and his teachings.
Betsy Hansen’s “Day by Day” was joyous and exuberant – leading many onlookers to rock in their seats and hum along to the familiar tune. After more parables, band manager Drew Fleming came out of the corner on a ukulele to accompany Rebecca White singing “Learn Your Lessons Well.” White’s fun choreography and strong vocals were a nice contrast to the counter-melody of Jesus giving an object lesson about light.
Katy Benko Miner served as voice director as well as a cast member – her powerful voice reminds me of Natalie Grant. Ahead of her song “Bless the Lord,” her character experiences a shift in perspective as she calls Jesus “Master” before taking us to church with her moving and engaging performance.
Josie Corrado’s choreography featured a wide range of styles, including ballet, jazz, lyrical, and even lindy hop. “All for the Best” is a duet between Jesus and Judas (Josh Carias) as a vaudeville-style tap number — and the entire cast donned tap shoes to join the party! Corrado’s choreography included physical moves and stories for the wide range of experience and flexibility within the cast. There were a few moments where the choreography overshadowed the lead singer, but overall the dancing added a wonderful layer of storytelling.
Rachel Marineau shows off her dynamic vocal talents on the song “All Good Gifts.” Margo Heine’s choral direction is evident in every song, especially this ballad. Martin Kelly then energetically leads the group in “Light of the World” in a call-and-response rock style to close Act I in style.
Act II has a different tone as it follows the last days of Jesus. Dawn Gaynor kicks off from the back of the theater with “Turn Back O Man” and playfully interacts with the audience between vocals. “Alas for You” is a catchy rock song, showing the righteous anger of Jesus against the Pharisees. The band does a particularly wonderful job with this difficult song. “We Beseech Thee” is directed by Alan Pierce, commanding the stage with great energy. Shortly after, “Beautiful City” gives the audience the gift of reflection through Snow’s beautiful performance, then leading to Jesus’ emotional struggle with his love for his people and the ultimate betrayal he will soon face. .
This production is different in several ways, one, in particular, involving Hilary Pierce as Mary Magdelene. Rather than someone bringing Mary Magdalene to Jesus for judgment, Heine portrays him as a friend bringing Mary to Jesus for mercy and guidance. A crowd follows her and threatens to stone her – but Jesus intercedes. The crowd dissolves and Hilary Pierce sings “By My Side” in a sweet voice that is both captivating and moving.
During “On the Willows” directed by band member Aaron Talley, followers each have one last moment with Jesus – many recreating their conversion stories through choreography. Josh Carias’ Judas joins Talley’s voice as he struggles with his own faith. I often find myself watching the set characters more than the lead roles in an emotional scene, and I’m glad I got to watch Judas. Carias’ comedic physical acting was superb before this scene, but his ability to display torment and regret for his betrayal was powerful. The end of the show is no surprise, but I recommend seeing it for yourself if you are able.
Band manager Drew Fleming led and performed on lead guitar, alongside Aaron Talley on bass, vocals and whistle, Joseph Evans on electric guitar and mandolin, Chris Calavas on drums and Lori Roddy on keyboard and vocals.
The café set designed and built by Peter Marsh was realistic and versatile – suspending belief within the framework of a recognizable community location. Dan Martin’s expert lighting design played with the set and the proscenium to create dozens of different environments for the different vignettes. The sound design by Frankie Stamps and directed by Anthony Amico was seamless and the icing on the cake of a well-managed production by stage manager Rebecca Perez.
As a parent, I appreciate family shows without being exclusively created for children. The parables are told in a fun and creative way, weaving together current events with references to musical theater and pop culture. The improvised nature of the audience participation kept the cast and audience engaged. ˆ is truly an ensemble show that gives everyone opportunities to shine. Can’t wait to see what Hope Theater does next!
Duration: two hours with a 15-minute intermission (not including 30 minutes of live music before the show).
divine spell through April 10, 2022, at the Hope Theater, 4173 Bludau Drive, Warrenton, VA. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. (except April 2) and Sundays at 2 p.m. There will also be a matinee on Saturday, April 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets ($20 for adults, $17 for students or seniors) are available in line or at the door while supplies last.
the divine spell program is available online here.
COVID safety: Audiences are requested to wear an appropriate mask that covers their nose and mouth inside the theater. Hope Theater’s full COVID-19 safety precautions are here.
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