When Noah Severud told his mother he landed the role of Jesus in "Godspell" at Grand Forks Red River High School, she was skeptical.

"She just said I have some big shoes to fill," the high school junior said with a chuckle. "Definitely, that's true."

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Severud and senior Sam Rath, who plays Judas and John the Baptist, lead the 31-member cast of "Godspell," a production staged this weekend by the school's Department of Fine Arts.

Originally produced on Broadway in 1971, "Godspell," a musical composed by Stephen Schwartz, is based on the Gospel of Matthew, said Connie Sherwood, the play's director.

It has been produced by multiple touring companies and in many revivals.

Both Red River and Central high schools have presented "Godspell" in the past, she said. The play has "a great score, and the story has withstood the test of time. It packs a powerful punch."

The first act portrays episodes of Jesus teaching by the use of parables and stories; the second recounts the passion of Christ, Sherwood said.

Jesus and Judas are the only biblical characters in the play; other actors use their own names and play the characters that they created, a ploy to emphasize that action is set in the current day.

Audience members will note the use of cellphones in one scene, as the actors simultaneously spout conflicting philosophies on how to save humanity, and sly references to today's newsmakers, such as actress Lori Loughlin's involvement in the college admissions scandal. ("What? Aunt Becky's going to jail?")

"'Godspell' is an experience," Sherwood said. "When you put Jesus and Judas into a secular setting and watch them, it is interesting. The words of Jesus come from the Book of Matthew. The reactions to those words and the interpretation of the parables come from the cast."

The original 10 non-biblical acting roles have been split to allow more students to participate, Sherwood said.

In preparing for the production, students have reacted to the drama of "Godspell," she said.

"There's something about music. The power of the crucifiction is profound when set to music and you're up there singing it."

Happy coincidence

Scheduling the production on the weekend of Palm Sunday is a welcome coincidence, said Sherwood.

"It's perfect; it takes us right into the secular world," she said, and invites deeper contemplation of questions Jesus posed in his parables and teachings that conflict with human nature.

"He said if someone steals your coat, you're supposed to give him your shirt as well," Sherwood said. "If someone steals your coat, don't you report it to the police? What did Jesus say, and what does he mean? Does he really mean that?"

The play, however, is not meant to convert anyone, Sherwood said. "We're telling a story. We're not teaching anything that shouldn't be taught."

"Godspell" was revived for Broadway in 2012 with a revised score, which the RRHS cast is performing.

"It's a lot harder," Sherwood said, but "has more interesting harmonies and more choral singing."

The ultimate effect is a more contemporary sound, she said. "The '70s flavor-with the hippy influence-is not there."

Challenges

Along with the music, the challenges of portraying these figures also drew Severud and Rath to "Godspell," they said.

"(Jesus) is a fun character, but also very emotional, very dynamic," said Severud, who, as an actor, has been focused on "switching from upbeat to very sad or melancholy (and) trying to display (Jesus') emotion in a way an audience can relate to."

Rath said, "Whether you're religious or not, sometimes we're mad at God, or at Jesus, because He didn't do what we wanted, or something didn't happen that we wanted, or there was a death of someone and we didn't understand why it happened."

As Judas, he is "channeling that anger into the character."

Rath kept one thought foremost in mind, however, as he developed this character, he said.

"Don't we all betray Jesus a little bit every day?"

If you go

What: "Godspell"

When: 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Red River High School Theatre, 2211 17th Ave. S.

Admission: $10 for adults; $6 for students and seniors (reserved seating)

For more information, call (701) 746-2411 or go to www.spacompany.org