Playing with Your Jesus

The Circle in the Square, NYC

Godspell is fighting to prove its relevance while trying to shake off the haunting suspicion of being terribly dated. Energy and dedication are on the side of the ten-person cast of youngsters, but whether youth is any match for a catchy score laden with creaky old Bible stories is a question that hangs in the balance.

All forms of trick and gimmick are employed in this mighty effort to bring Stephen Schwartz’s 1971 classic into the 21st century, from trampolines to confetti guns to on-stage instruments to countless topical jokes and a barrage of celebrity impersonations; even a baptismal version of the proverbial kitchen sink makes way it into the show.

Contemporary rock orchestrations have replaced most of the classic '70s sounds, working to bring in some less-retro vibrations, yet any edge the show once had has long since been rounded off to a comfy nub that could only effectively poke the most humorless of Born Agains. Still, there are some honest, modern-day moments and when those moments intersect with the playful fun of the piece and its hard-working cast, there is something to smile at.

The most redeeming quality is this production's cast and the sense that they are genuinely having fun together on stage. Uzo Aduba is a notable stand-out with her unbridled vitality and powerful presence. The intensity and depth in her eyes during her "By My Side" solo is one of the show's most meaningful moments. Telly Leung also leaves an indelible mark on the production with his rendition of "All Good Gifts," which he follows with a relentless and impressive chain of impersonations. The cast, as a whole, holds its own, finding its best and funniest deliveries in throwaway lines, with the exception of Hunter Parrish in the role of Jesus. Parrish, unlike like his disciples, seems stuck in the goofy, buffoon Jesus mode of the original production, so much so that he may as well have donned the Superman T-shirt offered to him at the top of the show. His hapless, hippie-like clowning is out of touch with the production’s attempt to defy being dated; it's painfully awkward to watch in an aw-gee-shucks kind of way.

Director Daniel Goldstein has successfully spurred his cast into a fevered frenzy that treads water, but beneath all the devices and this somewhat labored pushed there seems to be an apology. The tireless references and topical jokes also belie a certain desperation for the audience not to begin yawning when presented with played-out platitudes and parables that are neither galvanizing nor eye-opening, nor really all that amusing. Michael Holland’s new orchestrations offer many refreshing moments, presenting some of these near-standard songs in an intriguing new context. Dispersing the show's band throughout the audience was also a clever and enlivening touch, though the actors' vocals often get lost in the sea of this surround-sound.

So we are left with the question, "Why revive Godspell"? The songs are catchy and society could certainly use a savior, but Jesus and his teachings seem like a trite answer for our mounting troubles. However, taken at face value, there is some wisdom in the words and the spectacle of joyful youth is not something to be lightly dismissed as it may contain the some of the salvation we seek.- C. Jefferson Thom

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The Circle in the Square is at 1633 Broadway at 50th Street, NYC.

Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.

cj_thom Sierra Club