Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak
Directed by Daniel Goldstein
Location: Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., New York, NY
Set Designer: David Korins, Lighting: David Weiner, Costumes: Miranda Hoffman, Sound Design: Andrew Keister, Casting: Telsey + Company
Starring Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson, Morgan James, Telly Leung, Lindsay Mendez, Hunter Parrish, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, George Salazar, Wallace Smith
Mixed Results in Reviving a 70’s Musical
NEW YORK — After the remarkable success of Hair, musical theater underwent a profound change. Rock and roll, long considered a threat to more established forms of pop music, was shown to be a viable idiom in which to tell stories. Visual and narrative styles evolved to reflect the shifting social landscape of the time, and attract new audiences. Intriguingly, in this liberated atmosphere, Biblical themes enjoyed a high level of popularity. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice scored a hit with Jesus Christ Superstar (scheduled for a Broadway revival in 2012) while a more accidental success befell a humble student production out of Carnegie Mellon University.
Playwright John-Michael Tebelak, then hard at work at his master’s thesis, was harassed by a policeman as he attended a service at Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The irony was clear. Society preaches Christian charity, yet a kid can get stopped and patted down merely for wearing overalls and long hair. Casting aside his existing thesis project, Tebelak set about to write a play that would, in effect, reclaim the gospels for a generation disillusioned with authority. His concept was simple. A group of modern city dwellers exchange their street clothes for motley garb and mime-like makeup. Using found objects, they become Jesus and his disciples, and act out parables from the New Testament. Totalitarian forces intervene. Jesus is betrayed and persecuted, but his message is carried forward by his followers.
Biblical text, freed from the usual encumbrances of clerical dogma or Hollywood spectacle, resonated with young theatergoers. Later, Trabalek teamed up with composer Stephen Schwartz (also a Carnegie Mellon alum) who drew from a rich palette of influences including rock, folk, gospel and vaudeville. The score was, and remains a triumph: varied in tone and tempo, thoughtful without being pretentious, sensitive but never sentimental.
Straightforward as it may seem, a revival of Godspell poses many challenges. In the original show the disciples are meant to be childlike in the purest sense of the word. Innocent, playful, full of imagination. It’s a delicate balance: either silliness or solemnity, if ladled on too heavily, might obscure the simple beauty of the parables. In addition, the homespun 1970’s edition by necessity must be replaced with something more appropriate for our time. The makeover Godspell receives in its new incarnation is not wholly satisfying. The exuberant cast, led by Hunter Parrish as Jesus and Wallace Smith as Judas, is everything it ought to be: diverse, wildly talented, and unflaggingly committed to the material. The ensemble is composed of Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson, Telly Leung, Julia Mattison in for Morgan James, Lindsay Mendez, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle and George Salazar. Each gets a turn in the spotlight and all have strong personalities as well as joyous collective chemistry. But director Daniel Goldstein, despite his ingenious use of Circle In The Square’s round space, seems uncertain as to what he wants to the show to be.
Some of his revisions are on target, but some of efforts to update the show prove distracting. Jokes about contemporary phenomena such as Lindsay Lohan, Steve Jobs, Facebook, Donald Trump, etc. seem designed to keep the audience from feeling preached at. Paradoxically, though, much of this shtick has the effect of making the show seem more, rather than less, like a Sunday school lesson: The more sugar coating required, the more medicinal the content is presumed to be. Goldstein needs to trust his actors a bit more, and to allow for the fact that audiences, if they’ve made their way to Godspell in the first place, are unlikely to recoil from New Testament rhetoric.
Other innovations fit more organically into the show’s temporary / timeless landscape. One parable is delivered with Hip Hop inflections, which works pretty well. In another, a polyglot of international languages reflects the globalized culture of our age. In this same spirit, Miranda Hoffman’s costumes are both whimsical and realistic. David Korins’s set turns morphs fluidly from busy avenue to a baptismal fountain to a piano bar, and then some. The elements come together most seamlessly in the second act, which carries more plot than the first and also contains some of the show’s most adventurous numbers. Parrish goes at Alas For You, in which Jesus condemns the powers that be, with rock star intensity. Smoldering Mattison slinks her way through the vampish Turn Back, O Man. Most haunting of all is the ballad Beautiful City, in which Christ speaks not of a kingdom of heaven awaiting us after death, but of faith in the possibility of a better world here on earth. The pained relationship between Jesus and Judas Iscariot is played with moving delicacy by Parrish and Smith. The crucifixion scene, which could easily have been cringeworthy, is instead cathartic and powerful, thanks in part to the way David Weiner lights its Rembrandt-like tableau.
Overall, the performers succeed in accomplishing what Trebelak set out to do all those years ago: re-contextualizing scripture in order to better connect with it. The very fact of their youth places the show in an interesting social framework. Like Godspell’s originators they are coming of age in a turbulent time. Songs of tolerance and healing, of resisting hypocrisy, and of transcending material misfortune clearly have meaning for them. This is not to say that the show should sacrifice humor in the name of profundity. There are ample opportunities for comedy, and Jesus himself, according to the gospels, was not devoid of a sense of humor. But the gentler whimsy of human interaction lands with far greater impact than the TV references and topical japes.