After the time-travel revival last year of "Hair" brought us back to the all-too-brief Summer of Love, the new revival of "Godspell" brings us up three or four years past the '60s nostalgia sweepstakes, to the age of the Jesus freaks in the very early years of the '70s -- fittingly, the "Me Decade."
As a direct outgrowth of the hippie movement, which had burned out on bad acid and worse karma (Charles Manson, Altamont), the Jesus freaks burned brightly for years. At first looked at with alarm, the mainstream Protestant denominations, Evangelicals and even the American Catholic Church quickly realized that this intense spiritual, ecstatic approach to salvation might help revive their own dwindling congregations.
The Jesus freaks de-emphasized all the passages about eternal damnation and sin. This Jesus didn't come with fire and sword to separate families. No, this was a laughing Jesus, whose message was one of love, love, love. Even if the movement itself burned out, its religious intensity is still very much with us -- in the duality of the Evangelicals who make up the base of the Tea Party; and in the social justice types who comprise all those Occupy Wall Streeters.
This "Godspell," as directed by Daniel Goldstein, comes firmly down the middle. Although this wacky bunch of kids -- oops, I mean disciples -- look like they raided every thrift store on Bedford Avenue, they are well behaved and easily fall into line. (The too-studied hipness of the costumes is the production's weakest aspect, although I rejoiced that they didn't don clown make-up, as in the execrable film adaptation.)
It's easy to see why they would come under the sway of this Jesus. As played by Hunter Parrish, the messiah is a handsome (OK, gorgeous), athletic bundle of controlled energy and charisma to spare. This is Jesus as prep-school jock, president of the senior class.
He exhorts and moves the cast around like a crew leader at Choate or a lacrosse captain at Phillips-Andover. Don't get me wrong: Parrish can dance, has a nicely modulated tenor voice, and, in the final scenes of the Passion, makes himself truly pitiable. But having Jesus by far the best-looking member of the cast, a blond who looks as though he just stepped out of an A&F ad, comes off as disconcerting. Jesus as a Ralph Lauren model is a little too close to those Aryan wall-calendar renditions that were the bane of my Bible belt youth.
Some critics have suggested that the more polished, more "Broadway" John the Baptist/Judas, Wallace Smith, would have been a better and (being black) even edgier choice. It's probably unfair to castigate Parrish for being so good looking, but, as someone next to me remarked after the show, "Who knew Jesus was Scandinavian?"
Oh well. The rest of the cast is so motley; I was imagining the casting sheet that went out to agents: Asian man who can play piano? Check. (Telly Leung, and he's absolutely terrific). Former Disney child star? Check. (Anna Maria Perez De Tagle, and ditto). Fat, sassy black woman, goofy overweight white guy, lanky noodly guy, peppy white chick ... so the list goes on.
This in itself isn't a bad thing. Let's face it: "Godspell," which everyone knows from endless high school, summer camp and church productions, lends itself to this "hey, kids, let's put on a show" Mickey-and-Judy stuff.
What makes it all winning is that fabulous score. When one considers that Stephen Schwartz was only 23 and dashed this off in a few weeks, it's all the more remarkable. With the endless residuals from this and the eternal-motion machine "Wicked," Schwartz is probably the most successful theater composer on Broadway. Sondheim may get the kudos, but it's Schwartz who's raking in the bucks. His only competition is Andrew Lloyd Weber, whose own Jesus freak musical, "Jesus Chris, Superstar," will be getting its own revival as well.
Schwartz's music is so infectious, and it's delivered so well here, that, no matter how cynical you may be about the show's content, you'll be sucked into this discursive revue of parables, mostly from the Book of Matthew with a few borrowed from Luke. By the time we get to "Day by Day," early in the show, resistance is futile. Just sit back and bask in the halos.
For this production, there have been some topical references, which I didn't at all find intrusive and only added to what is at best a pretty basic book. The musical arrangements have toyed with many of the favorite numbers. Fortunately, the show's megahit number, "Day by Day," was left alone.
The jury will probably be out about the other re-imaginings, according to your own memories of your own experience with "Godspell." For my money, the best number in the show was the electric-disco-rock "We Beseech Thee," which turned this once-meek hymn into the Second Act showstopper.
My friend, who is a "Godspell" veteran, didn't like giving "Beautiful City" to Jesus and toning it way down. But for my money, it was the other height of the show -- a subtle, soft, quietly reflective moment among all that frenetic activity.
Goldstein makes great use of the theater-in-the-round of Circle in the Square, which, not incidentally, also results in no bad sight lines. The choreography by Christopher Gattelli was good enough so that I wished there had been more of it.
The central problem with "Godspell" is the abruptness with which it changes direction. Toward the end of the Second Act, all that literal acting-out of the parables gives way to the elegiac "Take, this is my body" and "Take, this is my blood" of the Last Supper and the intense emotional impact of the Passion.
Seeing a young blond man crucified on a fence brings another Matthew and another Shepherd to mind. The final scene is every bit as wrenching as it's supposed to be, and it's to Parrish's credit that he knows how to bump his performance down enough so that we get a sense of Jesus' torment.
"Godspell" might not be a great show, but it's a damned good one. With the holidays nigh upon us, this is quite simply the show to take any visiting t'ween relatives or friends' or (partner's friends') children. But don't be surprised if you find yourself just as involved as they are.
Sure, it's corny, contrived, and hopelessly hokey. But so is a lot of great musical theater. As I said, resistance is futile. Just give yourself to it and you'll have a great time.
Circle in the Square Theater
1633 Broadway at West 50th Street