If all the words that have been used to describe “Godspell” since it first opened in 1971, ‘traditional’ is not generally one of them. In the most common telling of the story, Jesus, John the Baptist and a group of makeshift disciples come together in an urban ghetto to act out the story of Jesus’ life, throwing in a few comic flares along the way.
So when Synoma Hays decided she was going to direct her own version of the musical at the North Riverside Recreation Community Theater, opening Sept. 30, she had no qualms about giving her production a little bit of a twist.
“I’ve always loved the music to it,” she said, “and what else is fun about it is that you can set it in so many different ways and really make it your own.”
For Hays, this meant setting most of the action in a run-down diner, where Jesus leads his new disciples after they have been called away from their daily lives. Hays said the idea came to her as a sudden inspiration while she was watching a different production of “Godspell,” but that this new setting has fit in perfectly with the story.
“In the show, the characters open the closed-down diner,” she said, “which is similar to what the characters go through. Each character is being reborn, just like the diner is being reborn.”
The characters Hays puts in the diner have also been revised from the original script. The people called off the street by John the Baptist, who eventually become the disciples, have been modernized, and include a businesswoman, messenger, chef and even a ballerina.
Hays said she also chose an older cast than is typically expected for “Godspell.” She said the show is usually performed by children or teenagers, but the youngest person in her 11-member cast is 23 years old.
In all of her changes, she said she was trying to get away from the common version of the show.
“It usually comes across as really ‘hippie,'” she said. “I wanted a more contemporary and grown-up version.”
In doing so, Hays has also discovered a few perks involved in this production. The mature cast includes two actors Hays worked with on her last production with the NRRCT, “Damn Yankees,” and four others she’s worked with on past productions at Rising Stars Theater in Chicago. This has helped to make the show one of the easiest she’s ever directed, she said.
“It’s one of the least stressful shows I’ve ever done,” she said. “It’s just a phenomenal cast. I can give broad directions, and they can make it their own and improvise.”
Such feelings about the show are also shared by the actors themselves. Riverside resident Holly Striska, a veteran performer on the North Riverside stage, plays a disciple, and said the amount of talent she sees from her fellow cast members is amazing.
“Everybody’s a triple threat,” she said. “There is not a person in the show who is not extremely talented.”
And everyone is putting that talent to constant use, she said, because, unlike most other musicals, the entire cast is on stage during the whole show. This, plus the unusually small size of the cast, has created a unique, family-like feeling at rehearsals.
“Everyone counts on everyone else to do what they’re supposed to be doing so that it all works,” Striska said. “You get to know each other very well, and you need to be able to trust each other.”
Striska also praised Hays’ adaptation of the setting. Striska was in a production of “Godspell” at Morton College in the 1970s that she said approached the show in an entirely different manner, with an art deco, minimalist set. Striska said she was enjoying the chance to revisit the material, albeit from a different angle.
“The idea of a diner is very fun, I think,” she said. “It’s a very different concept, but the show’s the same regardless of the setting.”
That’s not a fact that Hays would dispute. Despite her efforts to present a more modern version of “Godspell,” she also very much wanted to maintain its spiritual message, one that she said is not necessarily Christian, but would be left up to each audience member to interpret.
“It’s funny yet touching,” she said. “We hope to entertain, yet leave them with a message. It’s for all ages, and every faith.”
“Godspell” will run through Oct. 9 at the North Riverside Village Commons, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors and students, and $6 for children under 12.