Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Theater Review: Godspell

The Youthful Flesh is Willing, but the Spirit is Weak
By Lauren Yarger
Since feel-good messages, relevance to contemporary culture and an urgency to reach out to the younger generation have become commonplace in modern churches, it should be no surprise that a retelling of the gospels in theatrical form via the first Broadway revival of Godspell would strive to do the same.

A young, forever smiling, blond-haired Jesus (Hunter Parrish of TV's "Weeds") forsakes costumes like a cleric's robe (traditional religion) and a Superman T-shirt (he's not a super power...) to select a "Co-Pilots" (we're all the same) baseball shirt with a #1 on the back to be a sort of team captain to a bouncing, energetic group of ethnically diverse disciples.There are jokes with references to today's headlines and a rock beat with lots of good singers performing hip choreography (Christopher Gattelli) amidst special effects (Chic Silber, design). It's not unlike a lot of worship services at today's mega churches, but while the flesh is willing to entertain audiences with a glitzy performance, the spiritual message as interpreted by Director Daniel Goldstein is weak.

The vision starts off well as the regular routine of frenzied cell phone users is interrupted by John the Baptist's (Wallace Smith, who also plays Judas) call to "Prepare Ye" for the coming of the Lord (yes, for you die-hard Godspell fans, the Prologue is in). They abandon their everyday garb for some rather odd green, orange and blue-hued costumes (Miranda Hoffman, design) and get baptised in a nifty pool with dripping water right on stage.

The set is designed by David Korins, who does a nice job with some minimal props in the theater-in-the-round confines at Circle in the Square Theater. Stations for the musicians (Charlie Alterman provides music direction) are placed throughout the house, with a piano on stage as part of the set.

The Jesus whose coming is trumpeted is a little disappointing, however. Parrish, unfortunately, is miscast and appears to struggle for some of the notes in Stephen Schwartz' score ("Alas for You" is particularly weak). He portrays a character who ranges from an excited, mischievous little boy to a rock star (using a hand-held microphone for a couple of numbers) to Groucho Marx to Bozo the Clown on speed (for you Godspell fans, the clown motif begun with the original production in 1971 actually is gone).

He never embodies Jesus, though and when one of the disciples calls him "Master," we wonder why. In addition, there are a few times when Jesus seems to be a little slow -- like when Anna Maria Perez de Tagle and he have to count out on their fingers the three things she prays "Day By Day." 

If you take your eyes off Jesus and focus on the glitz you'll feel better (hmmm... that sounds like some churches too). The cast is very strong vocally and Lindsay Mendez, who genuinely appears to be enjoying herself, gives a rousing send up of "Bless the Lord" while Telly Leung delivers a nicely belted "All Good Gifts."

Standing out is a fabulous Uzo Aduba, who brings humor and depth to the various parts she plays in the retelling of the parables. She plays a funny nasty bird in the "sowing of the seeds" story, then sings a beautiful, emotion-filled "By My Side" in what is the productions most spiritual moment -- a life changed by an encounter with Christ.  This number sounds the most like its original version, whereas most of the other numbers have been updated with reverb, rock, hiphop and other youth-friendly sounds and new arrangements by Michael Holland. Some of them, like the modern jokes inserted, work better than others. "Turn Back, O Man" (sung by Julia Mattison, understudying Morgan James the day I attended) is a particularly disappointing arrangement. Schwartz also has updated some of the lyrics. Overall, bringing the show out of the hippie movement into the 21st century works well.

The staging of the parables is fun, clever and engaging (though the eternal damnation of the goats separated from the sheep is delivered like a punchline). The good Samaritan is told to the beat of an African drum (apparently written by cast member Celisse Henderson as her audition for the show)with the clever use of a newspaper and a ladder; the unmerciful servant is recounted with beat box; audience members, some seated on rush-priced cushions around the edge of the stage, are brought up to participate in among other things, a game of Pictionary; one story is told in different languages. At intermission, a tray of wine in communion-like cups is brought onto stage where the audience hangs out with cast members while the band rocks.
Some of the staging and choreography is visually stimulating, but not easily explained. Confetti is shot at the audience, trap doors reveal mini trampolines on which the cast members bounce, the last supper table is a pit of fog.  Cleaning up the stage during scenes is a bit distracting.

The Crucifixion scene is nicely done and well staged with moving effect for the audience in the round (David Weiner, lighting design). Jesus is lowered and carried dead from the stage while his disciples sing about building a "Beautiful City" on their own without his returning to join them. Yes, fans, the Resurrection is out (and as a result,  thousands will skip this production and attend community or church productions of the musical where a resurrected Jesus returns to join the cast for the last choruses of "long live God.")

The cast is rounded out by Nick Blaemire and George Salazar.

Godspell plays at The Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St., NYC. Tickets: 212-239-6200.
Christians might also like to know:
--The good seed is equated to a stimulous package
--Rich man Lazarus in hell cries out to Father Abraham that he wants to see his birth certificate
--Judas tells Jesus his father wants him to friend him on Facebook
--The language from scripture isn't exact. For example, Jesus tells the disciples that they all will betray him before the crock crows three times, not just Peter.
--While telling a joke, Jesus says that while some people read palms or tea leaves, he reads feet.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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