Not so long ago, in 2004, “Saved!” was a lightly satiric film that poked successful fun at the God-fearing and self-righteous among us. Now it is a lightly moralizing, pleasant but unexceptional musical receiving its world premiere off-Broadway.
Like the movie, this “Saved” (minus the exclamation point) focuses on American Eagle Christian High School. Here, all the boys and girls love Jesus. Here, in short order, such supposedly un-Christian occurrences as homosexuality, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and adultery send the holier-than-thou folks reeling.
But to the extent that the film had an edge, that edge is missing from John Dempsey and Rinne Groff’s book, Michael Friedman’s energetic but bland music and the pedestrian lyrics (by all three).
What’s appealing about this two-hour-plus production are Scott Pask’s imaginative design, which enables a mostly bare stage to become numerous sites in and out of AEC High; terrific, humorous costumes and lighting; the staging by Gary Griffin (“The Color Purple”), who sets a pace faster than Big Brown’s; and a strong cast headed by Celia Keenan-Bolger (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”).
Keenan-Bolger plays popular, virtuous Mary, who has sex with boyfriend Dean (Aaron Tveit) to help prove that he is not gay and, when she becomes pregnant, becomes an outcast and nearly loses her faith. The actress sings and performs with such emotional truth and richness that she lends the show a depth beyond the sentimental writing and simplistic message.
You might think that in adapting from screen to stage the creative team would have sharpened the material’s satiric thrusts at religious and social hypocrisy — after all, theater talks to less of a mass audience than film.
But, possibly desiring that mass appeal, the writers have diluted the story’s two most rebellious figures: the school’s lone Jewish student, Cassandra (a fine Morgan Weed), and wheelchair-bound Roland (Curtis Holbrook), a character played with sly sexiness by Macaulay Culkin in the film. And Christ’s cheerleader at American Eagle, Hilary Faye (the excellent Mary Faber), is merely, if comically, obnoxious — even pitiful.
Indeed, theaters around the country seeking to fill a slot that might attract a teen audience and their parents will doubtless find this sweetened “Saved” a tempting item.
Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York (Through June 22); Cast: Josh Breckenridge, John Dossett, Mary Faber, Juliana Ashley Hansen, Curtis Holbrook, Van Hughes, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Julia Murney, Jason Michael Snow, Aaron Tveit, Emily Walton, Morgan Weed, Daniel Zaitchik; Music-Lyrics: Michael Friedman; Book-Lyrics: John Dempsey, Rinne Groff; Director: Gary Griffin; Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo; Scenic designer: Scott Pask; Costumes designer: Jess Goldstein; Lighting designer: Donald Holder.