Godspell: Theater Review

Hunter Parish Godspell H
Jeremy Daniel
Prepare ye the way for disappointment.

The revival of Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s 1971 folk-rock musical finds "Weeds" star Hunter Parrish playing a buff Jesus.

NEW YORK – I’m the first to groan when critics spend inordinate amounts of review space talking about themselves. But I can’t begin any discussion of Godspell without some personal background.

Back in the early ‘70s, this was the first “grown-up” show I had ever seen live – my intoxicating introductory taste of theater that didn’t involve anthropomorphized animals, colorfully costumed figures on ice or pantomime villains. Having been raised Catholic and yawned through years of Mass, religious instruction and stodgy hymns, hearing the Scriptures in catchy songs was another revelation. It felt more authentically youthful than the usual “Kumbaya” attempts to make church hip. At the risk of damning myself to eternal nerd-dom, I confess I even bought the sheet music and plonked my way through “Day By Day” at the piano.

In other words, I was primed to respond to the first Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s 1971 folk-rock vaudeville spin on the Gospel According to Matthew. I still know the lyrics well enough to sing along, for chrissake.

But this misconceived production -- valiantly if blandly piloted by Hunter Parrish of Showtime’s Weeds as a smiley-faced, buff Abercrombie & Fitch Jesus -- pretty much obliterated 40 years of affection in 2¼ hours. Perhaps no longer being a pre-teen is a drawback in appreciating a Godspell targeted to the Justin Bieber generation. But even they deserve better.

Let’s face it, the book scenes have always been a little precious – cutesy retellings of the parables as comedy sketches, performed by a rag-tag bunch of ethnically assorted apostles dressed in playful bohemian thrift-store outfits. But they sprang out of a genuine countercultural desire to embrace Christianity in a non-institutional way. Earnest counterculture in this revival has given way to self-conscious pop culture.

The program contains no credit for book revisions, so blame has to land on director Daniel Goldstein for the unrelenting barrage of contemporary references that substitute for humor. Donald Trump, Lindsay Lohan, Steve Jobs, Charlie Sheen, Heidi Klum, Charlie’s Angels – you name it, they get a nod here. Ditto Facebook, iPads, stimulus packages, Birthers, Beanie Babies and, wait, the Macarena?

Had this served to make the show relevant to today’s celebrity-obsessed, quick-consumption, greed-is-good, zero-spirituality culture, a case might have been made for it. But from the cacophonous Tower of Babel opening, with the pre-enlightened apostles vomiting unintelligible verbiage into their smart phones while throwing out names like Sartre, Hegel, Galileo and L. Ron Hubbard, the air is thick with the whiff of random desperation.

Obvious opportunities for present-day significance are ignored – the song “All For the Best” could almost be an ironic anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement. But Goldstein instead squanders that topical connection in an easy joke elsewhere. Other gags are bludgeoned to death through excess repetition, notably a parable laced with Oscar movie moments.

Despite all the fresh talent and strong voices of the hard-working company (Celisse Henderson, Telly Leung, Lindsay Mendez and Nick Blaemire are especially appealing), there’s little evidence of them probing the material for meaning. Not even Jesus or Judas (Wallace Smith) emerge as three-dimensional figures.

Goldstein approaches it all like a Children’s Television Workshop special. Maybe it’s appropriate for a show so widely performed in schools, but this feels indeed like a high school production staged by the wacky new drama teacher. (Think Mr. G. on HBO’s under-appreciated Summer Heights High.) Christopher Gattelli’s choreography also throws a million ideas at the stage in the hope that something sticks.

The most criminal contribution, though, is arguably not the excruciating book scenes but the mangling of song after song. Hatched long before his blockbuster, Wicked (playing next door), became one of the world’s most successful entertainment properties, Schwartz’s score is an infectious mix of folkie pop, soft rock and Tin Pan Alley. What orchestrator Michael Holland does with those songs makes you question whether the creative team actually liked anything about Godspell when they took it on.

They certainly appear to have learned nothing from Broadway’s recent Hair revival, which succeeded by respecting the integrity of a show that will always be a period piece. “Rejoice in simplicity,” says Parrish’s Jesus at one point. But that message got tossed aside in the music meetings, along with the original score’s funky Hammond organs.

Even when gentle melodic songs like “All Good Gifts” start out acoustically, Holland and music director Charlie Alterman can’t wait to start slapping on reverb-heavy guitar riffs and pumping up the vocals. They dip into garage rock, fist-pumping glam metal, breathy emo, pop-punk, hip-hop and boombox rap, sampling from a range that spans Kanye West to Peggy Lee to George Michael. Occasionally, the grab-bag musical eclecticism works; Uzo Aduba channeling Tracy Chapman on “By My Side” provides the show’s first burst of raw emotional power.

But just when you think the production can’t get any bouncier, trapdoors open up in David Korins’ bare wood-floor set to reveal mini-trampolines for “We Beseech Thee.” As silly as this is, watching the cast boing all over the stage taps into the unbridled joyousness of the material more effectively than all the blissed-out mugging. Staging Godspell in the round should work in theory, given how inextricably the idea of community is stitched into its message. But the energy is dissipated and the cast’s effort shows in transmitting their effusiveness around a 360-degree space.

The strength of some of the second-act songs such as “On the Willows” ensures that a depth of feeling does eventually coalesce. And the crucifixion is arrestingly staged, albeit with cheesy simulated slo-mo from the disciples during the finale’s wailing guitar breaks. But my chief takeaway from this was the tarnishing of a treasured theater memory. Now, let’s see how Jesus Christ Superstar holds up in the spring.

Venue: Circle in the Square, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Hunter Parrish, Wallace Smith, Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson, Telly Leung, Julia Mattison, Lindsay Mendez, George Salazar, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle
Director: Daniel Goldstein
Music and new lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Concept and original direction: John-Michael Tebelak
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Miranda Hoffman
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Andrew Keister
Music director: Charlie Alterman
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli
Orchestrations and vocal arrangements: Michael Holland
Presented by Ken Davenport, Hunter Arnold, Broadway Across America, Luigi Caiola, Rose Caiola, Edgar Lansbury, Mike McClernon, Tolchin Family, Guillermo Wiechers & Juan Torres, People of Godspell