I’ve always believed that “Godspell,” like “Hair,” is actually better when it’s done by enthusiastic amateurs who may not have the big belt voices or comic chops but are able to reveal the tenderness and insecurity and innocence of the shows. I think I’m the only critic in NYC who not only did not like the Central Park production of “Hair;” I resented its professionalism. These shows have a sacred quality to me, a naivete that doesn’t mesh well with the hard shells and “bits” performers master with elan. So I’ve never thoroughly enjoyed a professional production of “Godspell.” Until now.
Circle in the Square’s production of “Godspell” has so much creativity and heart that occasional slickness seems a minor fault, easily overshadowed by the fun of its design and the beauty in the casts’ voices. The music by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” “Pippin”) is dangerously catchy (meaning, good luck getting it out of your head). Daniel Goldstein, who also directed the Paper Mill Playhouse “Godspell” in 2006, helms. This sweet, kind of zany retelling of the story of Jesus through youth culture, song and humor is just so much fun, and a perfect Christmas treat.
Staging the show in the round is pure genius. David Korins designed the set, which includes sparkly hanging chandeliers and a bunch of trap doors that have trampolines beneath them. Yes, the actors bounce up and down. Letting the audience see each other as they watching the kids vamp their parables brings the intimacy of the 1971 show forward. If you’ve only seen the movie, you really haven’t seen “Godspell” (ditto for “Hair”). The plot basically retells the story of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Over the course of the evening, Jesus and his whimsically dressed (costumes by Miranda Hoffman) apostles act out parables, occasionally pulling audience members in to help (oddly, the day I went, the audience members were also quite whimsically dressed), sing songs and tell jokes. As the show progresses you mark out some of the apostles as the cute one, the goofy one, the dramatic one, the sexy one, and so on.
Stephen Schwartz’s music (some new music and lyrics here too) is as catchy and soulful as it ever was, and much has been newly orchestrated to sound less 70s and more, at least 90s: some synth pop, even some rap. Schwarz has written some new lyrics, and added the lovely “Beautiful City” from the 1973 film. The bold arrangements are by Michael Holland, and the energy of the seven piece band spread around the house lifts the show up. I could have lived without the rock-update on the gorgeous “Day by Day,” but other techno updates worked very well. The show depends on set pieces that are full of mime and jokey schtick. Contemporary references and updates to John-Michael Tebelak’s book, like someone saying to Jesus, “It’s your father, he wants you to add him to Facebook,” are fun. There’s even a reference to using Ipads in Heaven, since Steve Jobs is up there now.
Hunter Parrish (“Spring Awakening,” Showtime’s “Weeds”) plays Jesus as goofy and sweet. His voice is somewhat breathy which makes a nice contrast with some of the belters in the show. Wallace Smith plays John and Jesus with intensity. After betraying Jesus, he watches from the house while Jesus says farewell to his disciples, leading the plaintive, sweet “On the Willows.” I was not the only one who cried. There are many terrific voices onstage, particularly Telly Leung (“Glee,” “Wicked) who leads “All Good Gifts,” and does a jaw-dropping series of impressions of famous films towards the end of Act One, zooming from “Yentl” to “Gone with the Wind” to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle (“Hannah Montana,” “Camp Rock”); there are also a few songbirds making their Broadway debuts, including George Salazar, who leads a funky “Light of the World.” He’s also hysterically funny. Choreographer Christopher Gatelli matches the movements to the newer beats and keeps the look fresh (and there is that trampoline section, done in time). The vaudeville staging of “All for the Best” was simply delicious. And Goldstein never lets the frenzy get out of hand.
It’s a family show, fun and earnest and appealing. It might be a must for your holiday.