Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: Godspell

The cast of Godspell, in the midst of their daily sugar high.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the first Broadway revival of Godspell, which opened in November at the Circle in the Square Theatre.  Unfortunately, there also isn’t anything particularly noteworthy about it.  While solidly staged and sung, there isn’t a whole lot to make this production stand out from the hundreds of regional and amateur productions of the show that occur every year all over America.

If you are somehow unfamiliar with the show, it’s a collection of vignettes depicting the various parables used by Jesus Christ as part of his ministry, occasionally punctuated by pop-influenced songs written by Stephen Schwartz.  The only named characters are Jesus, John the Baptist, and Judas, the latter two played by the same actor for reasons I’ve never quite understood.  The rest of the 10 person ensemble is a collection of loosely defined everymen and women who are intended to take on whatever characteristics the actors playing them possess.
The cast assembled for this production is comprised almost entirely of fresh young faces, with the only “name” star among them Hunter Parish (who apparently plays the son on the TV show Weeds, though I had never heard of him until he was cast in this show).  Parish makes for a generic Jesus; he has a gentle demeanor that works for the character but is by no means the most magnetic personality onstage, and his singing voice is merely passable.  His “Alas for You” is a tad flat, both vocally and performance wise, although to be fair I’ve never really seen any Jesus pull this song off successfully. 
The rest of the cast is certainly high energy, almost too high at times.  There is a frantic, hyperactive quality to this production which is off-putting, especially in the intimate Circle in the Square.  But one cannot fault the cast for trying, and their eagerness is ultimately more endearing than it is annoying.  All fine singers, the vocal standout is Lindsay Mendez, whose rendition of “Bless the Lord” is the production’s highlight.  Among the men, Telly Leung has a seemingly endless vocal rang and a star quality that makes him infinitely watchable, although he tends to overdo the vocal gymnastics.
Part of the appeal of Godspell is that while the order of songs and parables is set, the way in which they are presented and even the specific lines are meant to be improvised, allowing each new production to speak specifically to the time and place in which it’s presented.  This means the show is a true collaboration between director Daniel Goldstein and his 10 person cast, and it’s often difficult to tell who contributed what.  Whoever is responsible, there is a definite inventiveness to the way the parables are presented, especially the first tale of a widow and a judge, which in this production is rapped.  If the rest of the show had lived up to that high benchmark, then this Godspell would be a truly transcendent experience.
Also problematic is the fact that the staging of the parables is far more engaging than the staging of the musical numbers, which in theory are Godspell’s strongest asset.  While well sung, many of the musical numbers devolve into the cast aimlessly jumping about the stage.  This looks bad enough when they do it on TV’s Glee, but to see it in person without any camera lens to focus your attention amplifies the chaos factor.  And towards the end of the show, which attempts to evoke a more somber mood by presenting a stylized account of Jesus’ final days and his eventual crucifixion, boredom starts to set in.
The physical production of Godspell is quite lovely, especially given the additional challenges of staging musicals in the round.  David Korins’ set, sparse by necessity, is always interesting to look at, with trap doors, trampolines, and other surprises constantly being revealed.  There are even several magic tricks that are supremely effective because they are in no way telegraphed; they simply happen, often to audible delight from the audience.  And the lighting design by David Weiner is truly breathtaking, enhancing the shows mood while remaining interesting in its own right.  Miranda Hoffman’s costume design isn’t quite at the same level as the set and lights, but does manage to look eclectic and cohesive at the same time.
Those who are fans of Godspell or have never seen the show before will find plenty to enjoy about this production.  It is a great entry-level Broadway show, perfect for tourists or families with young children.  But more seasoned theatre goers will be less impressed, and can probably find better shows to spend their money on this spring.

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