Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

the 12

The 12 At Goodspeed Musicals

The 12, the new musical at Goodspeed Musicals by Robert Schenkkan and Neil Berg, about the twelve apostles minus Judas (yes, those guys) looks terrific.

The set designer John Doyle, who also directs, has created a surprisingly attractive dump of an abandoned industrial site. It’s an empty box, all corrugated metal, with a massive sliding door. The space is punctuated by two steel girders that evoke a fallen cross and the walls are decorated with graffiti. “Crucify Your Mind” is the most legible of the scrawlings.

The space doesn’t remain empty long as the cast, apparently on the run from the fuzz, pours through that door carrying an assortment of industrial detritus including a folding ladder, 52-gallon drums, wooden crates, and a plastic chair that will furnish the ever changing tableaux through which Doyle tells the tale.

The cast of The 12 looks every bit as funky and picturesque as the setting. The men in the multi-ethnic cast, most of them bearded, all look smashing, like working class heroes in a perfectly cast, big budget post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie. The one young woman in the cast, Mags (Adrienne Walker), the Mary Magdalene figure, looks like a raffish and very sexy pirate, complete with black eye patch.

Costume designer Ann Hould-Ward has outfitted the ensemble in the kind of apocalypse-chic rags and tatters that could inspire a Fall fashion supplement in the New York Times. They are quite simply terrific.

Lighting designer Japhy Weidman bathes it all in a sumptuous design that is every bit as kinetic as Doyle’s direction, and the music direction by Adam Souza and sound design by Jay Hilton surges throughout the house.

I mention the book (Schenkkan), music (Berg), and lyrics (Schenkkan and Berg) last only because I found them the least compelling of the artistic elements in The 12. The music lacks the peppy uplift that made Godspell a hit, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor does it have the Broadway-style operatic aspirations that propelled Jesus Christ, Superstar to prominence – again, not necessarily a bad thing.

The 12 is essentially a song cycle and while it has a number of high points, the whole does not rise much above the perfectly serviceable. The gospel-tinged “Rain,” powerfully sung by Mother Mary (Rema Webb), keening for her dead son, was perhaps the best of the bunch. “Rise Up,” a rousing anthem sung by the full company, showed promise as a pop hit.

As far as plot is concerned, The 12 is something of a meditation on what might have been going through the minds of Jesus’ terrified disciples in the immediate aftermath of His death. (The name “Jesus,” by the way, is never uttered.) For people who have been following Jesus for some time they seem oddly unsure of what his message is. They do a lot of agonizing and questioning.

At one point I wondered if The 12 was trying to make a case that in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion, the disillusioned apostles were desperately trying to cobble together a new religion. But The 12 is too reverential for that. It strives to be edgy but always remains respectful of the source material.

An extended section is devoted to the seemingly cynical questions raised by Tom (the doubting Thomas of the gospels, an excellent Wesley Taylor). His doubts are never put fully to rest because The 12 never shows us the risen Jesus, so Thomas never has a chance to touch His wounds and become a true believer. At the performance I saw, it took an audience member in an impromptu bit of post-show preaching to the exiting audience to make that point.

In one of the show’s few extended spoken interludes, Thaddeus, or Tee as he is identified in the program (Mel Johnson, Jr.), foretells the hideous ways in which the apostles will be martyred, news they all take with surprising equanimity. It’s a powerful moment. When Mags asks what will become of her, Tee tells her that she will simply be wiped from the narrative.

After a vote is taken in which the apostles agree to make her one of the group they sign a song in which she is not included. Some things never change it seems.

Director Doyle strives mightily and theatrically to make the material work, so much so that it frequently can seem like overkill. His frenetic blocking, which at times verges on choreography, often seems random and unmotivated, and yet it more often than not culminates in yet another stunning stage picture. Like I said, The 12 looks terrific.

The cast is uniformly excellent, all with terrific vocal chops. In addition to those already mentioned, Akron Lanier Watson as Pete (or Peter) and Gregory Treco as Simon were particularly effective.

Unfortunately, The 12 fails to find the sweet spot among the comfortably reassuring (Godspell), the pop-operatic pretentious (Jesus Christ, Superstar), and the truly transgressive (Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi) that might ensure it of a life beyond Goodspeed.

But, hey, what do I know? I rather liked The 12 and I wish the show good luck and godspeed from Goodspeed.

The 12 closed at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT, on October 29, 2023.

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