Here's one revelation from the energetic new revival of "Godspell" on Broadway: Jesus is easily the least interesting character.
That might seem strange coming from a musical that is based on the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew, but this Christ, played by Hunter Parrish ("Spring Awakening"), is, in a word, milquetoast.
He's earnest and pretty and wide-eyed, but lacks an ounce of charisma, a dangerous failing for anyone attempting to play the Savior. Fittingly, he passes on wearing the traditional Superman T-shirt in favor of a baseball jersey. (The number on the back? No. 1, of course.)
Thankfully, the rest of the 10-person cast — scary-talented and many in their Broadway debuts — distract any shortage of magnetism, making this hippy-dippy show funny, infectious and reverent. Blessed indeed are the followers.
Broadway seems to be getting religion of late — "The Book of Mormon,""Sister Act" and the upcoming "Jesus Christ Superstar" — and this first-ever Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz's landmark rock musical that opened Monday at the Circle in the Square Theatre fits perfectly.
Directed by Daniel Goldstein — who has been doodling with a 21st-century update of the 1970-era show since a Paper Mill Playhouse production in 2006 — is aided this time by choreographer Christopher Gattelli and both take full advantage of the theater's in-the-round gift.
The cast shoot confetti guns, pull up some audience members to share in the fun, bounce on trampolines, splash about in water, make Lindsay Lohan and Steve Jobs jokes, become human beat boxes and offer gorgeous versions of the songs "Day by Day,""Beautiful City" and "All Good Gifts."
Multiple parts, quick sketches, jumping into the aisles, the use of props such as ladders, newspapers and cell phones — not to mention the need to clean the stage afterward — and the fact that the orchestra's members are scattered across the theater — would have doomed most creative teams. This one purrs. Have they had divine intervention?
The cast members have varied experiences. Some are Broadway veterans such as Wallace Smith, who powerfully portrays Judas/John and whose credits include "The Lion King"; a lively Lindsay Mendez, who was in "Grease"; and Uzo Aduba ("Coram Boy") who has a super voice and, perhaps most stunningly, can do a funny Donald Trump impersonation.
Some have been on TV, such as "Glee" actor Telly Leung who proves so multitalented that it's clear he is being wasted in the background of that show, Hunter Parrish ("Weeds") and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle from "Hannah Montana," who is tiny and beautiful and yet seems game for anything, and delivers a stirring "Day by Day."
Others are making their big stage step and clearly embracing it. Celisse Henderson is fluent in three instruments and has a rich voice, while George Salazar is clearly having fun because he's simply hysterical. One performer, Julie Mattison, shouldn't even be up there: She's an understudy for an injured actress, but belts out a nice "Turn Back, O Man" and jokes about how the audience will be surprised to see her in their Playbill inserts.
"For the first time, I'm feeling `Wicked,'" Mattison said during one performance, which, of course, is the name of Schwartz's other massive hit musical which, it turns out, is playing just next door.
The musical is filled with similar zingers as the cast yanks the show — the original book is by John-Michael Tebelak — into the modern age using their improvisation skills and clever updates. At one performance, the cast joked about Oprah Winfrey, "South Park," Bill Cosby, "Charlie's Angels," Moammar Gadhafi, Charlie Sheen, Occupy Wall Street, the so-called "birthers," L. Ron Hubbard, Facebook, the stimulus package, "Star Wars," Katharine Hepburn and "The Macarena." Jesus turns water in a Poland Spring bottle into wine and does a neat trick of walking on water.
"Godspell," which has long been a standard show put on in colleges and high schools, captures the best of the old and embraces the new: At intermission, some cast members stay on stage for the traditional boogie with the audience — yes, free wine is handed out — and yet this new version has the parable about Tribute to Caesar illustrated by Jesus putting a coin in a tip jar. Costumes by Miranda Hoffman remain true to that dynamic, with the use of multicolored pants and suspenders as a nod to the hippy past, and prom dresses, sneakers, a bowling shirt and leopard prints a sign of the new.
It all ends badly, of course — for Jesus, not the show. The second act is a bummer, though Jesus' death is sensitively handled. But as his followers carry his body away — their faces glisten with sweat and they are visibly moved — it's clear that "Godspell" has anointed a new group of Broadway stars and we are the richer for it.
Oh, lordy. It takes real effort to drain the joy from “Godspell,” the buoyant 1971 musical celebration of the life and teachings of Christ.
The show is on frequent rotation in high schools and community theaters, but it’s never been back on Broadway until now.
And if director Daniel Goldstein’s overwrought 40th-anniversary revival is anything, it is really effortful.
It’s also frantic. And pushy. So much so that even “Day by Day,” one of the sweetly irresistible hit songs from the show by Stephen Schwartz (“Pippin,” “Wicked”), turns sour.
And that’s a sin.
In 1971, the vaudeville-style show, conceived and directed by John-Michael Tebelak, unfolded on a sort of urban playground. Hippie-haired Jesus wore a Superman T-shirt and, like his followers, clown makeup as they learned his lessons.
This is not your mother’s “Godspell.” Early on, Jesus, played by Hunter Parrish (“Weeds”) like a blond surfer who’s been hit in the head with his board, takes one look at a Superman T and opts for a blue baseball jersey with the number 1 instead.
The setting is an empty theater. Along with a few props and an upright piano (other musicians sit in the audience), the stage contains a dozen trapdoors. They hide a tiny body of water (for J.C. to walk on) and mini-trampolines (for all to rebound on in one of Christopher Gattelli’s jumpy dances).
God knows why, but there’s no end to the bouncing and tearing of newspapers in this revival.
Before slipping into getups found backstage (or at least that seems to be the conceit), actors arrive in street clothes carrying bags and boxes emblazoned with names like Sartre, M. Williamson, and L. Ron Hubbard.
It suggests a philosophy overload, and is a reminder that the Scriptures can help calm and quiet a loud and confusing world.
It’s a good idea. Too bad the first group number, and subsequent ones, sound so loud and confusing.
“Godspell” is built for improvisation and changes for currency’s sake. Rap rhythms and hip-hop flavors added here freshen the 40-year-old score.
But revisions to the script by Goldstein and company prove problematic.
Relentless and self-conscious stabs at topicality — they range from Occupy Wall St. and Obama’s birth certificate to Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan, to name just a few — exhaust. They also mute the power of the parables.
“Godspell” 2.0 has some moments. “All for the Best,” led by Jesus and Judas (Wallace Smith) is playful and zippy, while “All Good Gifts” is ardently performed by Telly Leung.
A forceful rendition of “By My Side” by Uzo Aduba stands out. Her voice has a soul-stirring quality like Tracy Chapman.
And Parrish’s take on the hopeful “Beautiful City,” sung shortly before the Jesus is betrayed, is simple, direct and divine.
Just what the show needs more of.
Way before “Wicked,” composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz had a blockbuster under his belt: 1971’s “Godspell,” which ran for 2,700 performances, 500 on Broadway. Not bad for a score Schwartz wrote in five weeks at age 23. You can hear his youth: The pop-rock music has a buoyant exuberance, and even the dramatic numbers find a clear line to your heart and head. Just try to stop humming hits like “Day by Day” or “Prepare Ye.”
But the revival that opened on Broadway last night takes cheerfulness to a whole other level. Watching this “Godspell” feels like rolling around in a vat of marshmallow fluff and sprinkles: It’s brightly colorful and sticky-sweet.
In its second coming, the Gospels-inspired “Godspell” offers a cast so young and enthusiastic that the show threatens to become a too-much-passion play.
Most of John-Michael Tebelak’s book is based on parables from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, while Schwartz’s lyrics borrow from hymns. To deliver them, director Daniel Goldstein assembled a fresh-faced, likable cast, which sells the material with the enthusiasm of new converts. Everything’s so relentlessly peppy that the show sometimes feels like a tent revival of the 1960s and ’70s Jesus movement.
Not that things haven’t been updated. At the beginning, Jesus (Hunter Parrish, from TV’s “Weeds”) creates a group of followers out of disaffected, isolated youths gabbing on their cellphones. Contemporary references abound: Facebook, “Purple Rain,” Lindsay Lohan, childhood obesity and the death of Khadafy. (“Too soon?” a cast member jokes.)
Schwartz contributed new lyrics, while the stories get fresh coats of paint: The one in which Jesus tells his followers to “forgive your brothers from your hearts” is done as a rap, complete with beatboxing.
The actors throw themselves into the show with pluck, but few personalities emerge. Parrish’s Jesus is a vanilla surfer boy with a blinding smile but little charisma -- if you had to follow someone here, it would be Wallace Smith’s Judas. Disney starlet Anna Maria Perez de Tagle (“Camp Rock”) contributes a competent “Day by Day,” but it’s Telly Leung who stands out from the pack, with his clear falsetto and quicksilver imitations of famous film scenes.
Goldstein and choreographer Christopher Gattelli milk the in-the-round staging for all it’s worth. The band members are scattered among the audience, the actors often run up and down the aisles and volunteers are invited onstage for games of charades and Pictionary. Clean-cut and colorful, this production skews young. It’s great for teens, but adults may find its hyperactivity a bit numbing.
A bigger problem is that the playful, jokey tone that dominates most of the show makes the transition to the somber conclusion jarring. We all know how Jesus died, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have used a bit of foreshadowing.
Go easy on the caffeine if you’re heading to the Broadway revival of “Godspell” that opened on Monday night at the Circle in the Square. The cast of this relentlessly perky production of the 1971 musical, which transformed parables from the Gospels into a series of singable teaching moments, virtually never stops bopping, bouncing, bounding, even trampolining across the stage and up the aisles of the theater. It’s like being trapped in a summer camp rec room with a bunch of kids who have been a little too reckless with the Red Bull.
Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak and featuring a tuneful score by Stephen Schwartz, “Godspell” was a monster hit when it opened Off Broadway 40 years ago, running more than 2,000 performances and later being turned into a cloying movie with a young Victor Garber as Jesus, sporting a nimbus of frizzy hair and clown makeup that I expect he sorely regrets.
Its afterlife in the wide universe of amateur, church and high school productions may be as formidable as that of any other musical of the era, thanks to its breezy, singalong pop score and its innocuous subject matter. (Nobody has a problem with onstage violence when it’s a matter of a certain Crucifixion.) The friend I took hadn’t heard the score in 20 years, having performed it in high school, but he remembered every word.
The new production, directed by Daniel Goldstein, asserts from its first moments that this is not your alma mater’s “Godspell.” On the contrary, it insists, with an eagerness that soon begins to grate, that the story of Jesus and his apostles is so timely you’d better start tweeting about it right this minute. (“OMG Jesus so hot!!!”)
The original book has been stuffed fruitcake-full of gags about contemporary figures and current trends. An abbreviated list would include Heidi Klum and Donald Trump, Steve Jobs and Lindsay Lohan, and even the inventor of the Shake Weight, whoever he or she may be. There are jokes about Facebook, naturally, and Occupy Wall Street, inevitably. (“Wicked” too: I guess even that megahit musical, also featuring a score by Mr. Schwartz and playing right next door, could benefit from some product placement.) How the marital foibles of Kim Kardashian managed to escape the frenzy of name-checking I cannot conceive.
The reference to the still-roiling roast-the-rich movement, at least, makes a certain amount of sense, since “Godspell” celebrates the idea that the spiritual life is of paramount importance, and among the many parables enacted peppily before us are several reminding that an obsession with material achievement will land you on the wrong side of the fence at the day of judgment.
But while some of the in-jokes are funny, and the audience seemed to enjoy them, most of the references felt like forced attempts to connect with a contemporary audience whose memory banks are like their ever-changing Facebook walls. You eventually start to wonder: If the story of Jesus and his apostles cannot be treated as timeless, what on earth can?
Mr. Schwartz’s score has also been modernized for the new production. The orchestrations by Michael Holland are more hard-charging and funkified than the originals, usually to the detriment of the songs’ gentle appeal. The original score encompassed a wide variety of musical styles — mostly folk but with some pop, rock and even vaudevillian razzmatazz thrown in. This version includes a new rap number that, like a lot of the contemporary jokes, somehow strikes a corny note. (The small orchestra, under the musical direction of Charlie Alterman, is seated among the audience.)
The exuberant cast, seemingly assembled to evoke the multi-sized, multicultural blend of big-voiced, bighearted kids on “Glee,” definitely keeps the show’s energy level from flagging for long (even when you sorely wish it would). They are dressed, by Miranda Hoffman, in whimsically ill-assorted attire that suggests dutiful foraging in amateur theatricals costume trunks as well as the sales racks at Urban Outfitters.
As Jesus, Hunter Parrish, who stars in the Showtime series “Weeds” and appeared in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway, has the mile-wide smile and twinkly blue eyes of a boy-band singer. Leading his disciples through a series of mixer games with tidy moral lessons embedded inside, he is so consistently airborne he begins to seem like a skate rat who’s left his skateboard at home. Mr. Parrish has a fine voice and sings his ballads — “Save the People” and “Beautiful City” — with a quiet ardency that appeals. He’s less persuasive in the aggressive “Alas for You,” although a murky sound mix might have been as much the problem as a lack of belting chops.
Throughout the evening the most appealing moments are the quieter ones. As the adulteress saved from stoning, Uzo Aduba performs “By My Side” (written by Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger) with a cool ferocity that brings out the deep need in her fervor for Jesus. Julia Mattison (the understudy for Morgan James) brings a sly seductiveness to her solo, the vampy, burlesque-flavored “Turn Back, O Man.” The show’s hit tune, “Day by Day,” is led effectively by Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, but its sweet simplicity is soon overshadowed by the busy musical staging of the choreographer, Christopher Gattelli, who seems determined to allude to every dance craze of the past 50 years during the course of the evening. (Blink and you’ll miss the Swim.)
Wallace Smith intermittently exudes dramatic intensity in the dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas. Nick Blaemire leads the trampoline-a-thon on “We Beseech Thee” with goofball charm. And Telly Leung performs an antic, amusing mash-up of famous movie lines — from “Gone With the Wind” to “Network” to “Dirty Dancing” to “Stage Door” — in the parable of the prodigal son.
This funny but frenzied bit of business, like much else in Mr. Goldstein’s production, feels like the kind of zany stunt the class clown would come up with. And while “Godspell” is in earnest when it comes to the tough stuff — like, um, that Crucifixion — the juvenile spirit of the show tends to infantilize its moral and spiritual subject matter, turning the story of Jesus’ life and his followers’ education in the rewards of faith into a series of schoolyard games. (Remember Pictionary?) Even if much of its language is adapted straight from modern versions of the Bible, and some of the lyrics are based on hymns, “Godspell” brings to mind a somewhat less venerable but also popular dispenser of moral lessons to its happy flock of followers: “Sesame Street.”
“Godspell," a favorite of community theaters and church groups since the beginning of time -- more accurately, since 1971 Off-Broadway -- has not been on Broadway in 34 years. How one greets this revival clearly depends on one's affection for Stephen Schwartz's first musical, an earnest, up-with-people, soft-pop pastiche based on "The Gospel According to St. Matthew."
For the "Godspell"-resistant among us, however, not to mention believers in the separation of Church and Broadway, director Daniel Goldstein's relentlessly hardworking, coyly updated and -- with one exception -- exceedingly well-sung production does little to help us see the light.
And that exception, alas, is star Hunter Parrish as Jesus. Parrish, so deft as the older son Silas in "Weeds" and in a replacement cast of "Spring Awakening," certainly has the golden-boy looks for the part. But he sounds tentative and, perhaps worse, seems unable to project lighthearted charm. He does get more comfortable when things grow dark after the Last Supper. Until he is strung up on the cross -- yes, really -- he wears a sickly grin and acts out each lyric as if trained by hula dancers.
The production is staged in the round, with all the requisite careening down the aisles. A sunken piano is onstage, and a handful of musicians are embedded in the audience. Schwartz's songs -- gospel, vaudeville, blues, often with beautiful harmonies -- have always been the show's strength. Unfortunately, the episodic text is a shapeless series of parables, updated now with feeble references to Lindsay Lohan, Donald Trump and Facebook.
The nine performers are talented young people who get less cloying in the second act, when they stop trying so hard. They begin in business clothes, talking into cellphones, but soon change into ragtag thrift shop/fairy-tale style. They dance the Macarena, shoot confetti at us from pop guns and, in one of the better numbers, jump on trampolines revealed under trap doors.
Scrupulous journalism requires me to report that Friday's audience leaped to its collective feet, roared with approval and many even went onstage for thimbles of wine at intermission. At the risk of appearing to kick a puppy, I admit I was not among them.
Here comes the first-ever Broadway revival of "Godspell," and understandably so. The 1971 Off Broadway hit enjoyed a strong five-year run, after which it moved to Broadway for an additional year. But the feel-good "Day by Day" tuner was always more Off Broadway than on; dress it up in $5 million togs and it still feels slight. Boomer nostalgia and modern-day marketing might alleviate this, but that's not the main problem. In attempting to bring this anachronistic telling of the age-old gospel up to date, "Godspell" uncomfortably straddles two eras and two styles.
Modernized revisions of ancient tales have been amusing audiences for more than a century. You could certainly take something like the Greatest Story Ever Told and add contemporary songs, up-to-the-minute gags, both the Chicken Dance and the Macarena, and jokes about Lindsay Lohan or about Steve Jobs using an iPad in Heaven. But such a new musical, written today, would certainly not be filled with songs of the soft rock variety; yesterday's cutting-edge score is way too comfortable for a 2011 protest piece. And yes, there's a joke about "Occupy 50th Street."
A current-day "Godspell" would not feature a gang you'd have met on St. Mark's Place during the Nixon Years, wearing hippy-ish costumes. (Jesus no longer dons that Superman shirt; it makes an appearance, but is rejected.) What we get at Circle in the Square is a show and a sensibility which drift aimlessly between today and the dark ages of forty years ago.
The authors, or rather whoever is in control, seem to have added each and every gag that comes to mind; good, relevant or not. There is even a line -- or perhaps merely an ad lib -- about how hard it is to get "Book of Mormon" tickets. This scattershot approach adds laughs but diminishes what could be the power of "Godspell."
Director Daniel Goldstein makes his Broadway debut, and not impressively so. This long-in-gestation revival arose from his 2006 staging of the show at the Paper Mill Playhouse. On the plus side is the score by Stephen Schwartz (here credited for "music and new lyrics"). The songs are indeed comfortable and nostalgically sweet. Schwartz ("Wicked") did not get much respect for this show initially, but it is tuneful and effective. The new orchestrations by Michael Holland often try too hard to modernize the score; Schwartz doesn't need the help.
Strongest aspect of the affair is the casting: This "Godspell" is especially well sung. Standing out are Lindsay Mendez (on "Bless the Lord" and elsewhere) and Telly Leung (on "All Good Gifts"). The one big letdown comes from Hunter Parrish, the Jesus of the occasion. Parrish has an innocent smile, big blonde hair, and plenty of teeth; he doesn't look like a Ken doll, exactly, but he sings like one. Wallace Smith, as John/Judas, is marginally stronger but not up to the level of the ensemble. One of the surprising bright spots is the entr'acte reprise of "Learn Your Lessons Well," sung by Leung (at piano) with Mendez and Smith.
Yes, there is an audience for this "Godspell," and perhaps they can be reached. But the strengths of the original have been so weighted down by mirthless improvements that it makes for a very long two hours.