Jesus (an acting one) will greet you in the aisles
Clare Rose Playhouse student production of ‘Godspell’ debuts
The set was a playground in the city. Chain-link fence sits behind a brick wall sprayed with graffiti: Peace, Love, Joy, Jesus, Flower Power.
“It’s arranged so that the performers go into the audience,” explained Sister Grace Edna Rowland of “Godspell,” which is celebrating Clare Rose Playhouse’s 35th anniversary with a student production.
You’ve got to love a show that has Jesus announcing a 10-minute intermission. (He also thanks everyone for coming.) Themes of love and joy are pretty attractive right now, too.
Get your tickets quick; performances are scheduled for Aug. 22-24 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 24 and 25 at 3 p.m. The show is an hour and a half (including the Divine announcer). This campus theater is located on the north end of St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue off the Sunrise Highway Service Road.
It’s the first time an all-student Clare Rose performance is being presented.
“We do five shows a year utilizing adult performers and when a young actor is called for, we use our students,” said Sister Grace, St. Joseph College’s executive director of the Clare Rose Playhouse and associate professor of communications studies. “To celebrate our milestone, we decided to stage an all-student musical.”
The students come at 6 p.m. for rehearsals, most times after work. “One is a camp counselor, one delivers for UPS and another works in a deli,” she said. “And they all love theater.”
But there is also alumni involvement. Claudia Bonavita, St. Joseph’s senior lecturer of child study, is among several. Bonavita, class of ’88, was a St. Joseph’s work-study kid for four years.
“My husband John and I are directing the current show,” said Bonavita in a phone interview. “My mom also performed here. My daughter Ava worked in the office and set up the lights and worked on sound. My husband John acted.” There were past tours to Italy and Ireland in the late ‘80s with the Clare Rose “Godspell” show, with Bonavita family involvement. “John and I directed and were in the previous production here also with my son Gene,” she said, who also acted. “It’s the kind of show you can insert modern, up-to-date information; we talk to the students and incorporate what they know.”
A couple of years after the Woodstock phenomenon, the musical opened Off-Broadway in 1971 and was a long-running success. It’s been produced by touring companies all over the world, made into a movie, and enjoyed a Broadway revival in 2011. The characters play non-Biblical roles and the show is mostly based on parables from the Gospel of Matthew, interspersed with song, clown analogy, vaudeville, charades and pantomime.
“Day By Day,” one of its songs, was a major hit.
St. Joseph’s College president Dr. Donald Boomgaarden admitted he’s seen it several times. “It’s a very popular musical and was written by a student as part of his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon, so it’s really set up to be performed by young people. It’s basically a retelling of the life of Christ using parables and done in a way that is faithful to the personality of Jesus Christ as a real person. So you get a personal connection, there’s lots of wonderful music, and it gives young people a chance to display their acting ability. It demystifies Christ and turns him back into the person he was that was so charismatic.”
Boomgaarden pointed to the existence of the college’s Drama Society along with the Clare Rose performances. “Sister Grace is a real professional and I’m very excited about her doing this production so theater and the arts are very much alive on the campus,” he said.
This is the fifth time “Godspell” is being performed, led by Sister Grace, also a firecracker raconteur. She can show you photos of Pope John Paul when the Clare Rose group met him after performing in small Italian towns for three weeks, referring to Bonavita’s touring comment. “We sang for the Pope,” she said proudly. “In 1988 we had formed a children’s theater group and did an exchange for high schools that taught Italian,” she explained.
How the charming playhouse, which just got a new awning, came to be is a testament to Sister Grace and Clare Rose, who provided theater support. Rose, who started a small soda distribution company with his wife Millie, lived in Blue Point. Clare Rose Inc., which then grew in leaps and bounds as a beverage distributor, was located in Patchogue for many years, then moved to Yaphank. It’s a historical tale for another time, but Sister Grace and Rose, along with students, transformed a former caretaker’s cottage, painting, hammering and using their own physical labor for additions. “Sometimes Clare would send an employee over to help out,” said Sister Grace. The Rose family is still devoted to the playhouse.
As a sort of glorious, appropriate finale to the St. Joseph’s run, Sister Grace is taking the “Godspell” production to the Abbey of Regina Laudis’s The Gary-The Olivia Theater on the abbey’s ethereal Bethlehem, Conn. grounds, Sept. 14 and 15.
The Clare Rose Playhouse’s production of “Godspell” runs Aug. 22-24 at 8 p.m., Aug. 24-25 at 3 p.m. General admission is $15; students and seniors $12. Visit www.sjcny.edu/long-island/student-life/clarerose for tickets and dinner deal info.
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