When the musical “Godspell” is mentioned, many people quickly recall the enduringly popular song “Day by Day.”
Then there’s Deacon Ray Defendorf — who not only has that tune etched in his memory, but just about every other aspect of the production that first seized the public’s consciousness in the early 1970s.
“After all these years, it’s still with me,” said Deacon Defendorf, who has directed “Godspell” at several stops over the last three decades — and has convened yet another troupe since becoming pastoral administrator at St. Mary’s Parish in Bath.
That ensemble, with Deacon Defendorf as director, has scheduled three performances of “Godspell.” They will take place Friday, Oct. 22, and Saturday, Oct. 23, at 7:30 p.m. each night; and Sunday, Oct. 24, at 3 p.m. All shows will be held in O’Malley Hall at St. Mary’s Parish.
“Godspell,” based on the Gospel of St. Matthew, depicts the teachings of Jesus Christ through clowns, pantomime and various other lively performances that act out Christ’s parables while incorporating a large dose of music. The production debuted on Broadway in 1971 and was released as a movie two years later.
Deacon Defendorf’s personal involvement in “Godspell” goes right back to that era, when he headed the Celebrate Life youth group at Church of St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads. He directed both “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” during this time, and later instituted those productions as a youth minister at St. Patrick’s in Corning until the early 1980s.
“We took this thing on the road — to Maryland, Connecticut,” Deacon Defendorf recalled. ” I used to drive a school bus with all the 40 cast members.”
Deacon Defendorf reinstituted “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the mid-1990s when he started an adult theater troupe in Corning, Angels in the Wings, that is still active today. After Deacon Defendorf became pastoral administrator at St. James in Waverly in 2001, he once again scratched his theatrical itch by helping originate Theatre Grove, which put on “Godspell” as its first production and continues doing community theater.
Deacon Defendorf — who became pastoral administrator at St. Mary’s in Bath in 2003 — held auditions for “Godspell” this past August, and got such a strong response for the 10 available roles that he kept a cast of 21 and split the lines up. The cast ranges in age from teens to 60s and includes performers with varying degrees of theatrical experience. Deacon Defendorf said he hopes to also organize “Godspell Junior,” a shortened version of “Godspell” designed to be performed by elementary-school children.
As “Godspell’s” director, Deacon Defendorf said he’s striving to intermingle Scripture stories with modern references such as Bush-Kerry campaign advertisements, as well as ads for credit cards and lawyer firms. “All the latest fad lines — you can have fun with all these little bits,” he said.
He continues to be energized by the songs — not only “Day by Day,” but also such numbers as the opening “Prepare Ye” and “All Good Gifts.” “The music in ‘Godspell’ is just outstanding,” Deacon Defendorf said.
One of the ecumenical troupe’s members, Mary Faucett, said “Godspell” will be her first stage production since she appeared in such high-school plays as “Babes in Toyland” in her native Hoboken, N.J. Faucett, a loyal volunteer at St. Mary’s Parish, has been cast in the vampy role of Sonia — a part that she describe as “a Mae West sort.”
“I seem to have the wiggle for it, I’ve been told, even though I’m 65,” laughed Faucett, who also quipped that she doesn’t mind hamming it up “just as long as they don’t throw me out of the church.”
Another St. Mary’s parishioner, Joyce Swackhammer, is taking on the “Godspell” role of Joanne which requires some singing — something she’s well suited for, based on her regular liturgical duties as cantor at St. Mary’s. However, performing on stage is all new for Swackhammer.
“It is always something I have wanted to do, since high school. To have an opportunity to do it in church is just icing on the cake,” she said.
Swackhammer added that “it has been fun getting to know the other people” in the cast. Yet she also observed that recent rehearsals involving Jesus’ Passion — which occurs at the end of “Godspell” — were quite sobering.
“That was very moving. Up until that point there was a lot of laughter, and all of a sudden it became serious,” she said. “Even talking about it now, I might begin to cry.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tickets for “Godspell” are $8 for adults; $6 for senior citizens and students; and $3 for small children. Advance tickets may be purchased through the parish office at St. Mary’s Church, 32 E. Morris St., or by calling 607/776-3327. Tickets will also be available at the door, space permitting.