‘Godspell’ is in its Second Coming
By Isa Goldberg/Chief Theater Critic
One of the bigger energy rushes in Manhattan right now, “Godspell,” with an updated text, an ethnically diverse young cast, and on stage baptisms, is making a splash on Broadway. Although at times it looks more like “America’s Got Talent” than The Gospel According to Matthew, it’s still the most entertaining Sunday school lesson I’ve seen, and great entertainment for kids (more so than for their parents).
John-Michael Tebelak’s book places the parables of the New Testament in a contemporary context, even making references to the stimulus package and to Occupy Wall Street. This revival also stars Jean Paul Sarte (Morgan James), L. Ron Hubbard (George Salazar), and Hegel (Anna Maria Perez de Tagle) shouting clichés that parade as their philosophies. Unfortunately, the effort to pump meaning into the play detracts from what was originally just a simple, soulful musical.
“Godspell,” after all, was a thing of the ‘60s. And while it is based on the quintessential biblical story – the Crucifixion – it also reflected a secular message about love and peace that was unique to that era. In that respect, the play seems like too much of an anomaly for our age. One wonders why it was even revived.
Its gentle easy feeling is replaced here by a hodge podge of entertainment and musical styles from folk to rap to reggae to country and gospel. The production plays like a variety hour with Jesus serving as master of ceremonies.
Still, Hunter Parrish’s clown-like portrayal of Jesus makes the biblical story palpable. Here the actor best known for his role on television’s “Weeds,” brings to mind a young and earnest Jimmy Bakker in an oddly nostalgic and humorous way. And the apostles are portrayed as a ragtag bunch of kids.
Among the ensemble, Uzo Aduba gives an outstanding performance in a variety of quick, but dynamic character sketches ranging from a bag lady to a bird and a greedy rich old man. Telly Leung excels in the show’s improvisational style in which bible lessons are taught by playing Charades. While there are some fine singing voices on stage and some individual moments that stand out, the acting is predictable.
With David Korins scenic design – trampolines and a pool of baptismal waters – the staging feels like a big open play space. It’s well suited to Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, which sports lots of jumping up and down and running into the audience. The perception that we are all part of the action on stage is fortified by David Weiner’s bright lighting that diminishes the sharp divide between stage and audience, actors and onlookers. Originally, the musical spoke to a certain sense of community.
But the idea of a shared experience here is often undermined by the effort that goes into achieving it. With Stephen Schwartz’s score performed at peak volume and Daniel Goldstein’s staging at Circle in the Square’s theater in the round, the lyrics often fly in a different direction than the audience. And while they are sometimes hard to hear, the message about Jesus and his humanistic ideals is certainly easy to follow.
“Godspell” is performed at Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Sundays at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Wednesday at 2 p.m., Saturddays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, go to telecharge.com or visit the box office
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