For most musical-theater performers, Godspell is a rite of passage. Or at least it seems that way. I mean, is there any drama nerd out there who hasn't done Godspell? I suppose, perhaps, there must be, but I can't help shaking this notion that everyone who wants to perform in musicals has to have at least one Godspell under his or her belt.
I've performed in the show twice, both times while I was in high school. The first time was in my high school's acoustically challenged auditorium cum basketball court. The next was in a rather squat and dingy church basement. And yet, somehow, both experiences helped to solidify my resolve to pursue musical theater as an avocation, and, eventually, as an academic pursuit.
As a musical-theater piece, Godspell represents an accessible introduction to theater for young performers. The score is fun to perform, and the fragmented nature of the show lends itself to a lot of different staging approaches, production concepts, and theatrical devices:
- "We did the Good Samaritan with hand-puppets."
- "Everyone in the cast was represented by a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and as each character caught on to what Jesus was talking about, his or her light bulb turned on."
- "We shot a video for our Prodigal Son at the beach, and then showed the film in performance."
- "Our Jesus was dressed like Michael Jackson, but at the end he turned into Bruce Springsteen."
And so on. But, as with so many things that we adored during our ever-receding formative years, there are certain youthful fascinations that simply don't hold up to clear-eyed, objective, modern-day scrutiny. And, at least for me, Godspell was better left a fond but fading theatrical memory than a multimillion-dollar commercial Broadway revival.
First, let's deal with the show itself. The book, as constructed by the late John-Michael Tebelak, is a seemingly random series of parables, adapted from the Gospel According to Matthew. Each vignette is certainly not without its charm or life lessons, but really the "book," such as it is, merely exists as a framework for the popular score, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.
Again, I grew up on this show. In fact, the original cast recording to Godspell was one of the LP records that I discovered in my parents' ample but underutilized record collection, and was thus partially responsible for turning me into the musical maven that I am today. And, again, I have such fond memories of performing these songs back in the day. But, hearing them for the first time in years, and with new orchestrations, I was struck by how dense and impenetrable the lyrics to many of these songs really are, particularly "Bless the Lord," "Alas for You," and "We Beseech Thee." I found myself straining to figure out what the words actually mean, perhaps for the very first time. I mean:
I send you prophets, and I send you preachers
Sages in rages and ages of teachers
Nothing can mar your mood
- "Alas for You"
What exactly would marring a mood entail? And how does it pertain to the lawyers and pharisees in question?
Grant us all from earth to rise
And to strain with eager eyes
Towards the promised Heavenly prize
- "We Beseech Thee"
Grant us all what from earth to rise?
And like an eagle, He renews
The vigor of thy youth
- "Bless the Lord"
Um...eagles? Renewing vigor? Is that what they do?
Yes, I know, if I took another second, I could probably figure these lyrical enigmas out. But audiences don't have that chance during a musical performance. As Stephen Sondheim said recently at a talk that I attended, song lyrics are different from poems in that a song needs to make sense as you're hearing it. When you're reading a poem, you have a chance to stop and reflect about meaning.
So, as for quality musical-theater writing, Godspell is no great shakes, IMHO. But it seems as though the creators of the current revival of Godspell understood this going in and felt that they needed to shore up the show with a ceaseless, chirpy energy and non-stop gimmickry. For this Godspell is staged within an inch of its afterlife by director Daniel Goldstein and choreographer Christopher Gattelli. Admittedly the result is not unpleasant, and the production is certainly never dull. What it is, though, is relentless, and incessantly eager to please.
The production staff have augmented the show's book with a dizzying, and ultimately wearying, series of topical references. (e.g. Performers texting during "The Tower of Babble," the Electric Slide, the Chicken Dance, Pictionary, charades, references to Facebook, Donald Trump, the Occupy Movement, the "stimulus package," etc.) It's as though every inch of staging is trying to say, "Hey, this show is relevant!," but it only serves as a reminder that the original book was apparently not serving its purpose.
There are certainly some clever staging touches, including an on-stage pool for John the Baptist and his ministrations, which becomes the source of some really effective moments, including having Jesus walk on water and creating an ethereal glow for the Last Supper. And the staging for the crucifixion scene (I hope that's not a spoiler for anyone), was both simple and stunning. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the trampolines during "We Beseech Thee." It seemed like a fun idea at first, but the device was underutilized in terms of he movement/choreographic possibilities, and it wasn't clear what it was supposed to actually mean.
The cast was talented and game, although Hunter Parrish as the Man Himself was a bit too bland and, well, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus" for my taste. His persona at the start of the show is rather cloying, and he couldn't really carry the drama in the second half. As for the supporting cast, most of these people would ideally be on Broadway at all times, but perhaps in more worthy vehicles. (Watching the show reminded me of the feeling that I get when I see reruns of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," with Laurence Fishburn as "Cowboy Curtis" and S. Epatha Merkerson as "Reba - the mail woman." Amazingly talented performers, earning a paycheck before they hit it big. It's almost as though you can see them saying in their heads, "It's a gig, man. It's a gig.")
Ensemble member Telly Leung has a sparkling voice, and does an uncanny series of terrific impersonations. Nick Blaemire proves himself a genuinely strong comedian and rather adept at accents. The adorable Lindsay Mendez has an appealing and lively presence even when she's not at the center of the action. Unfortunately, the phenomenally talented Uzo Aduba, who was simply mesmerizing in Prometheus Bound at the A.R.T., here fades rather facelessly into the ensemble.
Godspell has been playing to increasingly strong houses, although at significantly discounted rates. Will business build to the point where it can play through the notoriously barren winter months? Well, miracles do sometimes occur.