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A CurtainUp Review

Surprised I slipped into your playbill? —Julia Mattison, a replacement for the injured Morgan James at the performance reviewed
The Compay of Godspell
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 forty 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 that 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 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.

  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 (my review).

  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 act 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’s 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 naïvely 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 (Hunter Parrish) 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. Best surprise is how delightfully assured and funny Mattison was 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 fifty minutes including intermission, but this production lasts two hours and twenty minutes including intermission. That means thirty extra minutes shot to hell — oops heaven.

  Godspell originally opened at the Cherry Lane Theater on May 17, 1971. It transferred to the Promenade Theater and closed on June 13, 1976 playing a total of 2,124 performances. It transferred to the Broadhurst Theater June 22, 1976, then transferred to the Plymouth Theater on September 15, 1976 and then transferred to the Ambassador Theater January 12, 1977. It closed on September 4, 1977 after 527 performances on Broadway. The show re-appeared at the Lamb’s Theater from June 12, 1988 to December 31, 1988. Another production opened at the York Theater on August 2, 2000 and closed on Oct 7, 2000.

  Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak
  Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
  Directed by Daniel Goldstein

  Cast: Hunter Parrish (Jesus), Wallace Smith (John and Judas), Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson, Morgan James, Telly Leung, Lindsay Mendez, George Salazar, Anna Maria Perez De Tagle.
  Scenic Design: David Korins
  Costume Design: Miranda Hoffman
  Lighting Design: David Weiner
  Sound Design: Andrew Keister
  Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
  Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway at 50th St., New York.
  (212) 239-6200
  Tickets: $125.00; $135.00 on Saturday evenings
  Performances: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Opens Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. From Nov. 14: Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 2 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
  From: 10/13/11
  Opening: 11/07/11
  Closing 6/24/12 Closing: Open-ended run
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/09/11
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Tower of Babble / Company
  • Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord  John the Baptist & Company
  • Save the People Jesus & Company
  • Day by Day /Anika & Company
  • Learn Your Lessons Well / Sarah, Jesus & Company
  • Bless the Lord/, My Soul  Sara & Company
  • ll for the Best/ Jesus, Judas & Company
  • All Good Gifts /Telly & Company
  • Light of the World/ Patrick & Company
Act Two
  • Turn Back 0 Man / Julie, Jesus & Company
  • Alas for You/ Jesus
  • By My Side*  /Uzo & Women
  • We Beseech Thee / Robin & Company
  • Beautiful City /Jesus
  • On The Willows/  Judas & Company
  • Finale / Jesus & Company
  • *Music by Peggy Gordon and lyrics: Jay Hamburger
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