Broadway Review: ‘Godspell’

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Day by day, day by day, all of Godspell's backers pray: To show St. Matthew clearly. To love new staging dearly. To fill the seats more nearly. Day by day.

And I say to you, all of that looks likely in the contagiously energetic 40th anniversary revival that opened Monday night on Broadway. Despite four decades of a show without any real tension until the last 15 minutes, despite Godspell's jarring juxtaposition of scripture with a hip - and in this revival, sometimes hip-hop - superficiality, despite the show's billing as a feel-good rendition of the admonishing Gospel of St. Matthew, Godspell lives vibrantly as a piece of theater.

It has been a staple of church-basement productions that use it as a call to religion, and of community theaters that use it as an upright draw between Titanic and The Music Man.

It was not always thus. In its Off-Broadway opening, Godspell was subversive - the disciples were a cluster of actor-clowns in a junk yard and Jesus had a red heart on his face, a Superman shirt on his torso, and a war in Vietnam on his mind.

The revival, in a nod to that beginning, has Jesus considering what he should wear as he launches into parables; with a shake of the head and a no-no wave of the hand, he rejects a Superman costume, choosing instead a light blue shirt with the number 1 on its back.

This particular Number One is a blond-haired, apple-pie prep-school Jesus who smiles broadly through parables he recites as if he were leading a super-talented and diverse Sunday School class. Hunter Parrish (Silas Botwin on TV's Weeds) plays Jesus with a smooth singing voice and too smooth an edge -- he could have come to these disciples straight from rowing practice or glee club, but not as a rebel against the status quo.

It's hard to know what to make of all this, especially because it's so catching and playfully upbeat - an all-for-fun Bible in the Church of Our Lady of the Production Number. I've seen way more serious, and much less electric, Godspells and been mystified by them, too - St. Matthew doesn't work much for me as theater.

Still, this Godspell is not just a good time but often outright funny, which is why it will be a hit. The brilliant Stephen Schwartz, who wrote its score (as well as Wicked, next door to the theater where Godspell plays), has updated his lyrics, which pop.

The show is laced with clever contemporary references, and comes across in crystal sound design (Andrew Keister), with peppy direction (Daniel Goldstein), a fine backup orchestra scattered inside different rows of the audience and nine superb performers playing disciples - Telly Leung, Celisse Henderson and George Salazar the standouts among them.

The staging often comes rolling in from left field -- votive-size cups of wine for the audience at intermission, disciplies on trampolines. Some of the songs, set into snappy production numbers, carry revival-meeting zest. (Well, it is a revival.) And  Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, who sings "Day by Day," shows just why the song was an international chart hit. I can argue over the potential of Godspell to be a piece of compelling theater, in any setting. But I can't take issue with this particular staging, so richly realized.

 


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

Godspell: Playing at the Circle in the Square, 50th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, New York.