Wednesday, January 4, 2012

“Godspell” – Broadway revival of a theatrical chestnut has some praise-worthy moments… and some cringe-worthy ones.

Review by Mark A. Newman

The cast of Godspell is going to hell.

That is, they would if there was a commandment that stated “Thou shalt not upstage thy Lord and savior” because they all do, every last disciple.

First I have a confession: I never liked the score to Godspell. I’ve always found it a bit meek and uninspiring. This Broadway revival did nothing to change my mind. However, with the sly arrangements by Michael Holland and the excellent team of musicians tackling it, I am going to go out on a limb and say that these songs are as good as they could possibly sound. 

The same essentially can be said for the show’s manic direction by Daniel Goldstein. The various tunes and scenes all teaching parables from the Bible are delivered by the winning cast using a treasure trove of props—water is turned to wine, glitter guns are fired into the audience, Jesus walks across water, and in one lively scene the entire cast is bouncing on in-stage trampolines with great effect. Like the arrangements, the direction is about as good as it could be for this dusty old show.

The book has been updated to include a number of more contemporary pop culture references, many of which were oy-inducing. Charlie Sheen’s “winning” is pretty much played out by now and one segment included a god-awful Donald Trump impression that seemed to go on for as long as the Donald entertained a presidential run.

The only times Godspell truly ground to a halt was when Jesus took the wheel. Granted, he can’t help but be a bit self-righteous but when you consider the source material, that’s to be expected. Admittedly I understand that complaining that Godspell is too preachy is like complaining that Porgy & Bess is too ethnic. It comes with the territory.

Then there’s the cast. I’ve never seen a harder working, more talented cast this season than the one currently on the boards at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Every last one of them is overflowing with charisma, charm, and an innate likability to the point that I wanted to have shots with them after the show.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Hunter Parrish in the role of Jesus. When he first stumbles on stage, he just sort of appears with a goofy grin like a stoned surfer dude. That would be fine, if that was the persona he adopted throughout but unfortunately this Jesus is lacking star quality. Parrish does have a likable, boy-next-door appeal but he simply doesn’t stand out. And with the cast that surrounds him—all of whom have moments to shine—it makes his shortcomings even more apparent.

Jesus should be the center of attention; the cast shouldn’t steal focus so easily while he’s speaking, or worse, singing. Parrish seemed to be uneasy in the role, like he was talked into it. I never got a sense of connection with his disciples; he felt more like a substitute Jesus while the regular savior was off healing lepers. Parrish’s performance was in a “forced charisma” mode; you can’t really act charismatic, you just are or you aren’t. Also, I couldn’t tell if he was having some voice issues the night I saw it or if he was just a weak singer. Whatever the case, this Jesus Christ was no superstar.

That’s not to say there weren’t any star moments.  

Morgan James’ diva turn early in the second act set the action in motion on a fun and positive note since we’re all pretty well aware of where the story was leading. Let’s face it: any story about Jesus is not going to have a happy ending. At least not for him. Fulfilling the role of funny, over-the-top, chubby guy was George Salazar who never failed to induce laughter with his antics. Likewise for Nick Blaemire, a rubber-faced clown whose nimble abilities added a sideshow-like feel to the proceedings, and I mean that as a compliment. And Uzo Aduba, whom I had never seen before, had me totally mesmerized every time she was on stage. Her spotlight performances and solos were definitely highlights of the show. But as amazing as all these actors were, there was one standout that soared above the rest.

Have you ever had that moment in the theater when a singer hits a note that triggers something in your brain giving you goose bumps? For me, it’s relatively rare. The only recent example I can think of is the finale of In the Heights when Usnavi makes the realization that he is already where he was meant to be. During Godspell that goose bump-inducing moment occurs when Telly Leung hits the high notes in “All Good Gifts.” This is all the more telling because it is a song I am not particularly familiar with, along with the rest of the score. It was a jaw-dropping performance in a show full of actors exuding mad skills.

Leung’s tenor voice is as clear and unwavering as any I have ever heard on the Broadway stage. Here is a prime example of a supporting player who is more than ready to open a show in a leading role. Leung’s performance was probably the most astonishing I’ve seen so far this season. [Sorry, Bernadette Peters.] Plus, he does a Katherine Hepburn impression. If the Tony’s had a “scene stealer” category, Leung would be the odds on favorite this year.

As a prelude to the second act, Leung displayed his piano virtuosity by playing a medley from other Stephen Schwartz scores before he broke into the reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well.” This was a mixed blessing: while he ably demonstrated his abundant musical talent, hearing the tunes from Pippin and Wicked made me long for a show whose score was more, well, tuneful.

So despite the lackluster lead and a fairly tepid score I would definitely recommend Godspell. The show’s lively direction is ideal for Circle in the Square’s in-the-round setup, clearly one of the coolest houses on Broadway, and should be experienced live. Also, this group of actors is well worth the ticket price, especially in such an intimate venue.

In conclusion, let’s bow our heads in prayer: Dear lords of Broadway we beseech thee, please find a vehicle for Telly Leung to star in. The dude has more powerful pipes than the organ in St. Peter’s. Please, if we must have another revival of a Stephen Schwartz show, can it be Pippin or The Baker’s Wife?  Amen.

Epilogue: Need to add a “hypocrite alert” to the above review. As per my comments regarding the uninspiring nature of Stephen Schwartz’s score, I found myself singing “Prepare Ye” in the shower the next morning [the fact that I was singing it as Sammy Davis Jr. is immaterial], so I guess it was more inspiring than I initially realized.

Circle in the Square Theatre
235 W. 50th Street
New York, NY 10019

Featuring: Hunter Parrish (Jesus), Wallace Smith, Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson, Morgan James, Telly Leung, Lindsay Mendez, George Salazar, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Joaquina Kalukango, Eric Michael Krop, Corey Mach,  and Julia Mattison.

Music & Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: John-Michael Tebelak
Director: Daniel Goldstein
Choreography: Christopher Gattelli
Scenic Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Miranda Hoffman
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Sound Design: Andrew Keister
Musical Direction: Charlie Alterman
Orchestrations and Vocal Arrangements: Michael Holland

Tickets: (212) 239-6200 or Outside New York: (800) 432-7250;

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one intermission

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1 comment:

Jess said...

This review seems dead-on correct, based on how we felt when we saw Godspell. (And, of course, we're always right.) ;)