stage dive

Theater Review: Is Godspell Worthy?

The cast of GODSPELL. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

I suspect — and this is just one Pharisee’s opinion — that it is possible to outgrow Godspell, that indispensable rite of passage for adolescent drama nerds and nascent thrift-store enthusiasts everywhere, which is now enjoying its first Broadway revival. Embalmed in patchouli, yet insistently, sometimes gratingly ageless, Godspell began in 1971 as the American-tribal-love-rock-Jesusical, featuring ultracatchy genre-hopping pop songs by a young Stephen Schwartz, a very loose New Testament story arc conceived by the late John-Michael Tebelak, and a company of charming, vocally frowsy near-amateurs. The whole enterprise had a folky, kum-ba-Yahweh quality to it. When Tebelak cooked up the show in the late sixties — it was his Carnegie Mellon master’s thesis — the concept of Jesus-as-flower child (in clown makeup, no less) still had the potential to inflame. Nowadays, hairy hippiedom has given way to strategically tonsured hipsterness, the motley costumes look more Beacon’s Closet than “Strawberry Fields,” and professional productions show a pronounced tendency to cast toned blonde Adonises like Hunter Parrish, star of Weeds and Spring Awakening, as J.C. He’s got the aw-shucks smile, the patient Montessori delivery, and the somewhat feathery voice of previous Jesi (Stephen Nathan and Victor Garber, Godspell’s two principal proto-Christs, especially), but there the resemblance ends. This is Gleesus. Hear him roar! Breathily. (Most of the roaring, actually, is left to the Apostles, who sport voices as smooth and strong as industrially milled fiberglass. This crop of ’Spellers was obviously culled from a conservatory, not a drum circle.)

And really, what’s so wrong with an “updated” Godspell? Golly, aren’t they all updated? Perhaps no other American musical cries out for retrofitting more than this one, with its strung-together parables and arid stage directions: It’s really just a cut-down copy of Matthew, a songbook, and a brief: Be relevant to today’s youth. Director Daniel Goldstein has interpreted that charter the way most directors do (including me, in a college production that the school paper declared “cheddar-y”): He’s stuffed the show’s yawning cavities with enough pop-culture references to choke Peter Griffin. Oprah, Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, L. Ron Hubbard, and a Socrates who tweets his apothegms as he coins them — every moment is an exploding Easter egg, as cast members make regular sorties into the Circle in the Square’s relatively intimate seating banks to make Hair-y contact with the audience. (I had my glasses stolen, played with, accidentally dropped, and sheepishly returned — gotta respect a show that deliberately targets a critic for molestation.) To fully appreciate the show’s rapid-fire eagerness to connect, it helps to have the mental metabolism of a properly medicated Nickelodeon viewer.  

The music’s been given a once-over, as well, with sometimes radically tricked-out new undercarriages: Gone is the granola folk of “God Save the People,” replaced by an almost-reggae lilt; the gospel revival of “We Beseech Thee” has been canned in favor of neo-country (and is now performed on, gulp, trampolines). And yet, for all that’s changed, it’s still much the same spell. “Bless the Lord” is still the first number to bring down the house (especially as performed by the redoubtable Lindsay Mendez), and incandescent individual performances (Telly Leung’s magnificent “All Good Gifts,” for example) elevate songs that might, in less expert hands, show their age.

Speaking of showing age: I’ll admit to finding this — and all — Godspells a little exhausting. It’s not quite as nondenominational as I recall (references to “the heathens in the synagogues” met with sizzling silence the night I attended), but that could simply be the post–Mel Gibson world we inhabit now. Beyond content (and that could be Godspell’s motto: “Beyond content!”), the show is, at its core, an exercise in youthful exuberance and letting one’s light shine before mankind. One could accuse this Godspell, with its slightly corporatized sleekness and unmistakable sense of salesmanship, of undermining the show’s homespun garage-rock charm. But I believe that’s my nostalgia acting up. Go forth and enjoy. Just, y’know, prepare ye.

Theater Review: Is Godspell Worthy?