Theatre Aspen puts a high alpine spin on ‘Godspell’

A scene from Theatre Aspen's "Godspell" at their dress rehearsal on Wednesday.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times


What: ‘Godspell,’ presented by Theatre Aspen

Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park

When: Previews July 12 & 13; Opening July 14; Runs through Aug. 18

Cost: $30-$110

Tickets: Theatre Aspen box office;

More info: The show is recommended for audiences 8 and up

Theatre Aspen’s summer production of “Godspell” is re-imagining the hippie Christian musical for the mountains, with Jesus and his ensemble as backpackers in the woods.

The original Off-Broadway production put the parables from the Gospels in an unspecified urban setting and the 1973 film is set in New York City. But this rock-and-pop spin on the Gospels could take place anywhere. So director and choreographer Sara Brians, in her debut show for the Aspen company, wanted to imagine it in Aspen’s high-country backyard.

Brians has appended a pre-show segment to this kid-friendly “Godspell,” in which the backpackers come onstage, pass out marshmallows to the children in the audience and set up camp. The production’s young seven-member cast carry climbing ropes, follow trail signs and set up tents as they share and sing lessons of peace and love inspired by the Gospels.

The job of building this “Godspell” backcountry world fell to set and lighting designer Paul Black, who is in his seventh season of working his transformative magic on Theatre Aspen’s cozy tent theater in Rio Grande Park.

No set can compete with the natural mountain scenery surrounding the tent, Black noted Sunday afternoon as his team dressed the set: “We have brilliant artists, but we cannot compete with that.”

He sought to find novel ways of imagining a Rocky Mountain landscape inside the 200-seat theater.

“I was trying to discover a way that would bring the outside in, without saying, ‘We’re trying to copy nature,’” Black explained.

What he came up with is a folk art-inspired, stylized vision of local scenery. The set is lined with aspen trees, painted on barn wood, that rise a story high.

Thinking about ways to heighten the alpine atmosphere in impressionistic ways, Black thought about the familiar local experience of looking skyward in an aspen grove and seeing sun rays filter through the high canopy of quivering leaves. That image served as inspiration for a big, ray-streaked sun image running alongside the stage.

But, in keeping with this notoriously peppy rock musical, Black and Brians wanted to add some razzle-dazzle to the folk art aesthetic. So Black has run color-changing LED lights along the sun rays.

“We have this arts-and-crafts feel, but we still need to be able to go to a rocking place and have some fun,” Black said.

The show will be sharing the Hurst Theatre stage with “Ragtime” throughout its 16-show run. That means this “Godspell” set must disappear within an hour of its 11 a.m. shows to make way for an evening run of “Ragtime.”

So Black designed the “Godspell” set to fold and collapse down to 12-feet-by-5-feet, to fit in the very limited backstage area of the tent during “Ragtime.”

“That’s kind of fun, to do that Tetris,” he said. “It’s a puzzle. … I love it when people see multiple shows here and they don’t know how we transform the space in this little tent.”

“Godspell” begins previews Thursday and opens Saturday. The show runs through Aug. 18.