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Theater Review: The 12 -- Goodspeed Musicals in CT

The cast of Goodspeed's THE 12. Photo: Diane Sobolewski

The 12

Music and Lyrics by Neil Berg

Book and Lyrics by Robert Schenkkan

Directed by John Doyle

Goodspeed Musicals

Through Oct. 29, 2023

By Lauren Yarger

A compelling story about religion without an agenda? In the theater world, this is nothing short of a miracle!

But with a book and lyrics by Robert Schenkkan, told to the beat of a pop-rock score and lyrics from Neil Berg, that is exactly what Goodspeed Musical audiences witness in The 12, a moving story of how Jesus’s disciples walk through a journey of sorrow and faith following his death.

This tale, emotionally staged by Director John Doyle (who doubles as scenic designer), focuses on the disciples as they hide out in the upper room (an abandoned industrial space covered in graffiti, framed by a large steel girder that looks like a cross) after the crucifixion of Jesus (called Teacher, rather than by name). They arrive devastated, angry, uncertain and scared about what will happen to them if they are identified as being affiliated with Jesus. They have conflicts with each other, as well as a crisis of faith over the loss of their leader. For those not up to speed on who the 12 were, they are listed in a neat cheat sheet in the show program (which offers more details than here):

· Andrew (Wonza Johnson), a fisherman

· “Bart” (Robert Morrison) a.k.a. Bartholomew

· James (Kelvin Moon Loh), brother of John

· “Jimmy” (Etai Benson) the other James, often called the brother of Jesus

· John (Kyle Scatliffe) brother of James

· Matt (F. Michale Haynie) the tax collector Matthew

· Pete (Akron Lanier Watson) Simon Peter, brother of Andrew

· Phil (Brandon J. Ellis) Philip, friend of Bartholomew

· Simon (Gregory Treco) the zealot

· “Tee” (Mel Johnson Jr.) a.k.a. Thaddeus

· “Tom” (Wesley Taylor) doubting Thomas

For those of you who are counting, Judas doesn’t make an appearance. The action takes place after his death too – possibly at the hands of one of the group. The 12th disciple completing a last-supper tableau, subtly created by Doyle, is Mary Magdalene (Adrienne Walker), called “Mags” by Jimmy, who might be more than just a friend, and the rest. In a nice choice, Mary, the mother of Jesus (Rema Webb), also gets some stage time and the two women have some of the most moving and melodic songs of the production.

Mags sings:

So much pain

Heart so sore

Thoughts so bleak

Please, no more.

Neared his tomb

Lightening flashed;

Heard a savage roar.

The earth rose up!

An awful sound.

Choked by dust

Fell to the ground.

I heard the stones go crashing by;

Terrified that I would die.

The shaking stopped

Then broke the dawn

Revealed his grave -

The rock was gone.

Powerful stuff in there.

The storytelling, even with some more modern elements like guitars on stage and police sirens blaring while the disciples wear more modern looking clothing in dark hues (Ann Hould-Ward, costumes), never loses its way because it stays anchored in the scriptures and pure human emotion to which everyone can relate. Who hasn’t suffered a devastating loss? Who hasn’t felt betrayed? Who hasn’t felt terrified of what lies ahead? If you ever have experienced a real-life nightmare from which you can’t awaken, you’ll relate to the emotions being expressed by each character. Excellent storytelling by Schenkkan (who has a Pulitzer for The Kentucky Cycle and a Tony for All the Way.)

This also isn’t a feel-good, just-have-faith tale either. There is no attempt to convert or condemn. Much like God himself, the creators of this work give free choice. What you believe is up to you (and this show will unlikely offend regardless of what religion you follow). Instead, they offer a genuine story of human emotion and the search for something in which to believe, then cling to, even when faith has been dashed. Despite their renewed hope, the disciples are very much aware of the price they will pay for following their beliefs. When they leave the safety of their hideout to go out into the world to share their faith, it’s an inspiring moment, thanks to the direction of Doyle who brings his Tony-award-winning experience -- and apparently some long-ago hopes of becoming a priest -- to this project.

Honesty, I kept waiting for the story to veer off in the way most Christian-hostile theater does: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers and had a child; Jesus never claimed to be the son of God or was illegitimate and it all was a ruse by Mary to avoid hide her pre-wedding sexual activity; Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead and the disciples carried out a hoax, etc. But it never did. And Thomas, with his many doubts and questions, gives a voice to those watching who might be skeptical, whether or not they come from a believing background:

· “Where’s the proof?”

· “Could have been a coincidence…”

· “What if he made a mistake?”

· “Why did he have to die?”

The 12 is a Godspell/Jesus Christ Superstar for a new generation. It had a successful run in Denver, where it won a Henry Award for Outstanding New Musical. You can catch it at Goodspeed in East Haddam, CT through Oct. 29. Or, if prayers are answered, perhaps someday on Broadway.

Additional credits: Greg Jarrett, Music Supervisor/Orchestrator; Adam Souza, Music Director; Ben Covello, Associate Music Director; Japhy Weideman, Lighting Designer; Jay Hilton, Sound Designer.

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