Godspell's Gospel Gets Aggressively Upgraded on Broadway 

Book by John-Michael Tebelak
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Daniel Goldstein

Seeing the Godspell revival at Circle in the Square is like spending an evening at a dorky Christian summer camp—like this enthusiastic ensemble spent all day learning their lines and choreographing their dances, like you keep waiting for Jesus (Hunter Parrish) to invite you to call him "Pastor Gee." A breakthrough Off Broadway hit for Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak in 1971, the musical is a sketch-structured, seminar-style revue, like Hair with its drop-out ethos replaced by one of Christian brotherhood. It's a loose retelling of Matthew's gospel, from John the Baptist to a glamrock crucifixion, with an emphasis on Christ's teachings. Most of the show is Jesus preaching in parables to a group of followers who are sort of like the apostles; they goof around, share corny jokes, suddenly turn humorless, and sing praises. Unlike Andrew Lloyd Weber's character-driven Jesus Christ Superstar (also, weirdly, from 1971), Godspell is more about the message than the man, proselytizing a liberal theology about charity, forgiveness, and love. Hey, it was the 70s.

To connect with an audience that had grown suspicious of institutions like The Church, Schwartz's catchy, toe-tappin' score employed modern musical idioms—mostly of the folksinger variety, but which occasionally topple over into guitar rock or older-fashioned African-American styles. (Christ is for everyone! The cast is as racially inclusive as a Disney Channel sitcom.) Of course, what was modern four decades ago is now dated, so Schwartz and revival director Daniel Goldstein have updated the book and arrangements. The vaudevillian banjo in "All for the Best" has been replaced by a Bo Diddley beat on guitar; the Rita Hayworth-style vamping of "Turn Back, O Man" has been Gaga-fied. "Updated," in fact, may be putting it lightly—it's more like aggressively contemporized. There's rapping. And there are references to cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, Lindsay Lohan, Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, Oprah, Qaddafi, Steve Jobs' death, Occupy Wall Street and Shake Weight.

There are moving moments, too: Jesus' forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery; the passionate farewell-embraces at the last supper; the cast carrying Christ's dead body from the stage with the promise to build a City of Man. But its Christian drum beating can be overbearing: a prelude introduces philosophers, from Socrates through Sartre, singing as an ensemble in chattering dissonance. They're like some cacophonous gaggle of Babelers; only the simple clarity of the Christian message cuts through their huggermugger. During "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," history's greatest thinkers are thus baptized en masse, using pools of water beneath the stage revealed by trap doors. (Set designer David Korins' clever and resourceful set is full of trap-door surprises, including trampolines.) Godspell is silly but also painfully earnest; like another religious-minded Broadway musical, Book of Mormon, it at its core affirms the values of faith. Which makes economic sense, at least: the heartland tourists in the audience surely value their Christian convictions as much as they enjoy their pop-culture savvy. Just look at Sister Act.

(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

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