Godspell Broadway Review - The Wall Street Journal

That Wild and Crazy Messiah

By Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

NEW YORK – Skeptics be damned:"Godspell" is a joyously noisy romp that goes off like an extra-long string of firecrackers. It took 34 years for Stephen Schwartz's once-ubiquitous rock musical, in which the gospel according to St. Matthew is enacted as a circuslike vaudeville turn, to make it back to Broadway, and by all rights the results should have been dated beyond hope of resuscitation. But Daniel Goldstein, the director of this revival, has blown all the dust off "Godspell," and the result is not a stale exercise in boomer nostalgia à la "Hair" but a fizzy, family-friendly show that deserves to run…well, forever.

The gimmick of "Godspell," if you want to call it that, is that the 10-person cast, led by Hunter Parrish, turns Jesus' parables into a fast-moving string of slapstick-fueled comic blackouts. The only thing missing is a pie in His face. Yet there is nothing impious about the comedy in "Godspell," whose punch lines are all used to make theologically serious points. To be sure, the gospel of "Godspell" is social—we do not see Jesus resurrected—but only the most hard-shelled of fundamentalists will bristle at the show's festive treatment of religion, and the second act portrays the Last Supper and crucifixion with a delicacy that approaches the poetic.

Much credit for the visual poetry goes to David Korins, the scenic designer, who has made unusually effective use of Circle in the Square's theater-in-the-round stage (as have Mr. Goldstein and Christopher Gattelli, the choreographer). "Godspell" works best when it is presented most simply, and this production steers well away from the kind of glossy big-bucks ostentatiousness that could have killed it stone dead. For the most part it looks like a bunch of kids threw the show together on the spur of the moment, which is exactly how "Godspell" ought to look.

In a way, the most surprising thing about "Godspell" is that Mr. Schwartz's score still sounds so fresh, partly because of Michael Holland's up-to-the-second arrangements (and the high-energy playing of the seven-piece pit band) but mostly because it was so well written in the first place. You'll remember "Day by Day" if you were around in the '70s, but the other songs are, if anything, even catchier. That said, I doubt this revival would be half so effective had Messrs. Schwartz and Goldstein not spruced up the show, inserting pop-culture references that move John-Michael Tebelak's original book into the age of iPads, hip-hop and Occupy Wall Street with little sense of strain. It helps, too, that everyone in the cast is funny, especially George Salazar, and that nearly everyone sings well, especially Celisse Henderson and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle.

Morgan James, the stupendously talented jazz-pop vocalist who played Miss Sarah Brown to fetching effect earlier this year in the Barrington Stage Company's revival of "Guys and Dolls," was supposed to have sung "Turn Back, O Man." Alas, she sprained an ankle during previews (she'll be back this weekend). I wouldn't have wanted to be in her understudy's shoes, but Julia Mattison covered deftly for Ms. James, making a pleasing impression in her own right.

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