"Godspell” is a musical theater phenomenon — a proven staple for professional, stock, regional, and community theaters, as well as for productions in high schools and playgrounds for the past 40 years. Although the reasons for the success of this Stephen Schwartz/John-Michael Tebelak collaboration based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew have always eluded me, I have not been inclined to cast any stones at the performers who I’ve seen in various productions over the years. That is, until this production, which makes a point of ignoring the fact that it has taken decades, if not centuries, to erase the notion that Jesus is more credible and appealing to the western world if he is portrayed as/by a blue-eyed, streaked blonde young hunk with a toothy grin permanently plastered on his beautiful beatified face.
From what I understand, Hunter Parrish was an excellent replacement in the role of Melchior in “Spring Awakening,” and as he undoubtedly is in the role of Silas Botwin in the long-running Showtime TV series “Weeds.” But it his cloying, insistently unpersuasive, if not completely insincere performance as Jesus (discounting the energy he expends) that does a disservice to a production that, at its best, features some bright and winning young talent.
“Godspell” originally opened at the Cherry Lane Theater on May 17, 1971. One of the producers was Princeton resident Stu Duncan, now a theater critic.
The current revival has been directed by Daniel Goldstein, who is making his Broadway debut. It should have afforded Goldstein an opportunity to improve on the one he directed at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006. Recruiting back into service scenic designer David Korins and costume designer Miranda Hoffman, with whom Goldstein worked with on the Paper Mill production, may have been a mistake. As re-envisioned within the limitations of the Circle in the Square, “Godspell” looks more like a shoddy on-the-cheap jamboree of escaped inmates of a madhouse, unlike the Paper Mill’s flashy production values that never quit.
Perhaps I am missing something, but I find nothing remotely amusing or endearing about a swarm of garishly costumed, incredulously motivated young people acting out New Testament parables, no matter how many references there are to cell phones, iPads, Lindsay Lohan, L. Ron Hubbard, or to Donald Trump’s towers. There is a spot included for jumping on trampolines, presumably enabling choreographer Christopher Gattelli to get his name on the program. 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 and collaborators have wrought upon it.
Without a set to distract us, the scenic wonders include scattered pools that are revealed beneath the stage floor, a nice shower effect, a ladder of Babel, and a band that is scattered through the theater leaving only a beat-up piano and its player in view on the otherwise prop-deficient stage. This means that it is up to the company to give their all to the numbers that come and go somewhat numbingly. 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. An attempt by cast members to provoke clapping-along is only lamely considered.
The basic structure remains true to a toddler’s Bible-school format, with a little satire and sex thrown in for G-rated titillation. Also included are all facile theatrics, vaudevillian-like shtick, and youthful playfulness to fulfill the needs of the show and fulfill its nod to religiosity for the easily converted.
In all fairness, much of the puerile fun in this production was greeted with bursts 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 (Wallace Smith) donning straw hats and canes is fun, as is the baptism scene in which a water spout pours from the rafters allowing John the Baptist (also played by Smith) to perform the ensemble-inclusive ritual.
Some of the text performed as rap gets our rapt attention. The best surprise is how delightfully assured and funny Mattison is as the lead singer in the ensemble number that opens the second act, “Turn Back O Man.” Among the many fine voices, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle puts over the show’s big hit tune “Day by Day.” Celise Henderson (“Learn Your Lessons Well”) and Lindsay Mendez (“Bless the Lord”) make the most of those two gospel-esque songs. Most impressive among the company is Nick Blaemire, who empowers “We Beseech Thee” to produce a high enough to sustain us through the drone of the last few minutes with the obligatory Crucifixion. Where’s the resurrection when we need one?
One thing that puzzles me is that the running time of the Paper Mill production was one hour and 50 minutes including intermission, but this production lasts two hours and 20 minutes including intermission. That means 30 extra minutes shot to hell — oops, heaven. **
“Godspell,” Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway $125; $135 on Saturday evenings. 212-239-6200.