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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Circle in the Square


  Ph: Jeremy Daniel

Sitting through the new Broadway revival of Godspell is like watching an old high-school friend getting beat up until he or she is barely recognizable. What was supposed to be fun and merry has turned labored and excruciatingly painful.

My less-than-enthusiastic response to this revival has led to some soul-searching on my part: Have I changed (or rather grown up), or is this in fact a bad production of a worthwhile show? After all, the rest of the audience seemed to be enjoying it. Nay, they loved it. Why couldn’t I too drink the Kool-Aid (or, rather, the grape juice, which is given out freely at intermission)?

Godspell, which ran for years Off-Broadway in the 1970s and received a faithful film version, is one of the world’s most popular musicals. Amateur groups are inclined to do the show since it has a street theater aesthetic and is relatively cheap to produce. And you can always count on church groups coming to see the show.

Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, which is a straightforward depiction of Jesus’ last days, Godspell depicts Jesus as a gleeful contemporary youth who shares his parables with some pals. The characters alternate between acting out his stories as if they were clowning exercises and singing Stephen Schwartz’s folksy songs like “Day by Day,” which has become a standard. It is only at the end that Jesus is crucified. One could also make a case that Godspell is not so much about Christianity but the creation of a community.

Although Godspell is thoroughly dated in 1970s counterculture and its moral-driven content resembles a children’s Bible class (learn to love your enemies; don’t throw the first stone; forgive your profligate brother), it can definitely still be enjoyable and even moving if it is done well and true to that spirit.

One can also make the case that Godspell, in spite of its Christian appearance, is really about the creation, destruction and rebirth of community. For instance, I think the song “Beautiful City” has become even more moving following 9/11. (The lyrics begin, “Out of the ruins and rubble, out of the Smoke, out of our night of struggle, can we see a ray of hope?”)

Staging this revival in-the-round was a great choice that emphasizes the show’s informal nature and the presence of audience members, many of whom are invited to participate in the show. It was also clever to begin the show with cast members singing while they text on their iPhones and Blackberries. And during one song, each performer bounces on his or her own trampoline.

However, director Daniel Goldstein has misguidedly turned the songs into brash and over-amplified pop-rock anthems and updated the sketches with countless contemporary references ranging from Steve Jobs, Lindsay Lohan, Donald Trump and Gaddafi to shake-weights and Wicked.

As a result of these changes, the songs have lost much of their catchy and feel-good flavor while the dialogue scenes are difficult to follow and thoroughly irritating. (There’s nothing as painful as watching people try way too hard to be funny.)

Still, the young cast is not to be blamed. Led by former Weeds actor Hunter Parrish, who has a weak voice but acquits himself well enough as a buff and blond Jesus, the cast is marked by spirited performers with touching personalities and exceptional pop voices including Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Nick Blaemire, Telly Leung and Lindsay Mendez.    


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