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?
“Godspell,” through Sunday, October 22, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. $19 to $68. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org.