Far be it from me to cast the first stone, but there’s nothing about

"Godspell," the Stephen Schwartz/John-Michael Tebelak musical based on

the Gospel according to St. Matthew, that convinces me it deserves the

resounding worldwide success it has had for the past 35 years. I must

be missing something. What does it take to make watching a group of

young street people act out New Testament parables not seem like an

elementary class in theater games for actors?

The answer is not forthcoming in this rather perfunctory production

under the earnest direction of Daniel Goldstein. Perhaps because the

original concept is so deeply rooted in the simplistic conceit of

flower children philosophy and so permanently defined by its naively

considered metaphysical insights that there is probably no way to make

this show any better than what Goldstein, his artistic collaborators,

and the technical staff has conscientiously wrought upon it.

The ubiquitous scaffolding that has saved many a production set

designer (in this case, the work of David Korins) from thinking beyond

the elemental has for added visual appeal the glow of scattered work

lights. On the stage are the obligatory collection of ladders and

pails, a clothes rack, a trap door for the occasional

now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t effect, and a six-piece band perched on

what looks like a junk pile in the corner. Lighting designer Ben

Stanton, however, pulls out all the stops to give different glows and

hues to the enthusiastically performed numbers that come and go with

the necessary concession to tradition.

Enthusiastic is also the best way to describe the work of the

personable and talented young cast, who occasionally elevate some of

the skits and songs out of the ordinary. Stephen Schwartz, the show’s

composer, who seems to have found his place among the more

commercially successful contemporary composers of American musical

theater ("Wicked," "Pippin"), is credited with providing some new

lyrics. But where or when they are introduced was difficult to tell

considering the shrillness of the theater’s electronic enhancement

that made much of what was sung incomprehensible. An attempt by cast

members to go into the aisles to provoke clapping-along is only lamely

considered.

The basic structure of the show remains true to a toddler’s

Bible-school format with a little satire and sex thrown in for G-rated

titillation. Although the Paper Mill Playhouse production employs all

the facile theatrics, vaudevillian-like shtick, and youthful

playfulness to fulfill the needs of the show, it never becomes more

than the ho-hummable circus-y Saturday morning sermon for the easily

converted. In all fairness, the audience responded to the puerile fun

with frequent outbursts of applause. The inherent irreverence at the

core of the show may appeal to those unable or unwilling to consider

the source, and that’s okay.

Perhaps times have changed us just enough to resist what is basically

childish humor. A soft shoe between Jesus and Judas donning straw hats

and canes is fun, as is the Baptism scene in which a water spout pours

from the rafters into a barrel from which John the Baptist performs

the ensemble inclusive ritual with a sponge.

Some of the text performed as rap gets our rapt attention. Less

amusing is the belabored song "Turn Back O Man" that finds seductress

Julie Reiber wiggling her derriere in the aisles aggressively enough

to have sent one little boy running up the aisle not only to escape

her but also to avoid the fling of her lethal red feather boa. Having

one of the company’s many fine voices, Anika Larsen puts over the

show’s big hit tune "Day by Day."

The juices really begin to flow when Sarah Bolt takes the show by

storm with her dynamic takes on the gospel-esque songs "Learn Your

Lessons Well" and "Bless the Lord, My Soul."

An endearingly energized Robin De Jesus, most familiar for his role in

the delightful 2003 indie film, "Camp," about teens at a theater camp,

gets his juices flowing through the physically empowering "We Beseech

Thee." It’s almost enough of a high to get us through the drone of the

last few minutes with the obligatory Crucifixion. And where is the

resurrection when we need one?

– Simon Saltzman

"Godspell," through Sunday, October 22, Paper Mill Playhouse,

Brookside Drive, Millburn. $19 to $68. 973-376-4343 or

www.papermill.org.

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