Peter D. Kramer

In this ‘Godspell,’ a Jesus who will friend you

In Reviews on November 8, 2011 at 6:42 am

WWJD?

If that “J” is Hunter Parrish, the star of the first Broadway revival of “Godspell” — which opened last night at the Circle in the Square Theater — the answer is simple: He’d arrive unaccompanied and jump right in to the group, smile wide, sing sweetly, dance, tell stories, and charm.

In the Age of Facebook, Jesus would definitely friend you.

“Godspell,” the Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak musical based on Matthew’s Gospel, has had thousands of revivals, in church halls, barn theaters and school auditoriums. But it hasn’t been on Broadway since Sept. 4, 1977, when its initial run closed after 527 performances at three different theaters.

This “Godspell,” like others before it, is a musical of its time, putting a contemporary gloss on parables ranging from The Good Samaritan to The Prodigal Son. It has never been seen as it’s being performed at the Circle in the Square, downstairs from another little Schwartz musical called “Wicked.”

Directed by Daniel Goldstein, in a stunningly clever Broadway debut, this is a “Godspell” ripped from the headlines. There are references to Moammar Gadhafi in Hell and Steve Jobs in Heaven. Donald Trump makes an appearance, of sorts. And Charlie’s Angels, Occupy Wall Street and, of course, Facebook. The Pharisees looking to trap Jesus are lightheaded cable TV spin doctors, their talking points predetermined.

The air crackles with razor-sharp lines that seem like ad-libs, giving the proceedings a “what’ll they say next” feel that sharpens the ears.

Goldstein opens his “Godspell” with the current preoccupation: texting. Of course, in the nimble hands of his fiercely talented cast of triple threats, it manages to turn that particular medium into a message: Looking down at those tiny screens, our fingers flying, only serves to separate us from our fellow man in a babbling Babel-like existence.

Each parable is followed by a song, with new orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Michael Holland. Composer Schwartz, who has been involved with the production, wrote a new melody to accompany one section of the musical and permitted Goldstein to move some elements around, including a short reprise of the song “Beautiful City” as a lasting, lingering final thought.

Parrish, who took a Broadway turn in “Spring Awakening,” is best known as Silas Botwin on the Showtime series “Weeds.” Here, he is a genial Jesus, playful, innocent, but with lessons to teach. When he chooses his “costume” from a rack of clothes, he considers the Superman T-shirt — one of the iconic images of “Godspells” past — but chooses, instead, a baseball jersey from a team call the Co-Pilots.

This Jesus is a team player. (Still, lest there be any doubt, he wears No. 1 on his back.)

Parrish’s voice is clear and fine and he leads a cast of off-the-hook singer-actor-dancers, mimics all. Together, they blow whatever dust might have settled on the work in all those church basements over the years and present a rocking, heartfelt “Godspell,” one that manages to be cool, clever and never cloying.

They have energy to burn. They bounce — sometimes literally — around David Korins deceptively simple set design. Presented in the round, this “Godspell” often spills up the aisles into the audience, making it at once expansive and intimate.

Wallace Smith’s John the Baptist blows the bugle to get things started with a “Prepare Ye” that fits his booming voice perfectly. Later, as Judas, Smith’s vocal color changes, softens, in “On the Willows,” all of John’s bombast and certainty gone.

Likewise, Lindsay Mendez’s high-octane “Bless the Lord” fills every inch of the Circle in the Square, in which “Godspell” is presented in the round. Mendez’s powerful voice is a highlight, as is her stage presence, which is unmistakable.

George Salazar carries a lot of the comedic roles — a Pharisee turned professional wrestler, the wronged brother of the Prodigal Son whose outrage takes the hilarious form of an interpretive dance — and leads a high-energy “Light of the World” to end the first act.

Uzo Aduba’s “By My Side” — sung after the parable about the sinless being the first to cast stones — is visceral, wounded and winning, acted as much as it is sung. It’s a performance that will linger in the memory.

Nick Blaemire’s “We Beseech Thee” is likewise something to behold but for an entirely different reason, staged in one of the most playful and upbeat numbers which must be seen to be appreciated. After all, isn’t theater about surprises?

Celisse Henderson is a force to be reckoned with in “Learn Your Lessons Well,” and Julia Mattison (appearing in the role usually played by Morgan James) played “Turn Back, O Man” for laughs — and got plenty.

Telly Leung, who appeared in Goldstein’s 2006 Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Godspell” that started the musical on its path back to Broadway, takes a star turn here, displaying musicality (vocally and at the piano) and an ear for voices, in a madcap Hollywood retelling of the parable of The Prodigal Son.

Anna Maria Perez de Tagle’s “Day By Day,” one of the show’s anthems, is clear and sweet, comforting and recognizable. It’s Exhibit A in the case for “Godspell” — the tunes still work so well.

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli clearly knows what he has here and puts the young cast to work with all sorts of styles, including one dance medley that includes all those wedding-reception favorites, from the Electric Slide to the chicken dance and The Bump. Later, after Parrish and Smith perform a spinning vaudeville “All for the Best,” Gattelli blows it out into a rousing production number.

The band — sprinkled throughout the small arena-like auditorium — is led by music director Charlie Alterman, whose piano occupies a pit carved out of the oval stage. Alterman is a character in the show, chatting with the cast at times — “How’d you know I had a drum back here?” he wonders at one point — and singing a sweet duet on “On the Willows.”

Goldstein also includes moments of audience participation, plucking unsuspecting ticketholders from the edge of the stage to play Pictionary, charades and even read a few lines.

It’s a nod, in a way, to lead producer Ken Davenport’s approach to funding this “Godspell,” which was produced, in part, by a consortium of small investors dubbed “The People of Godspell.” For $1,000, people who had a church-hall connection to the musical, or just a love of Schwartz’s show, could become backers, at a fraction of Broadway’s typical buy-in rate.

People who have a history with “Godspell,” who know every line of every song, will find plenty to love at the Circle in the Square. Those discovering it for the first time will recognize the power of a story well told, of performers at the top of their game, of a design team that has seen to the details.

For all of its joy — and there is plenty of that — “Godspell” follows Matthew’s gospel to its conclusion, to a cross on a hill. Golstein handles this with sensitivity and a bit of stagecraft, managing to share the experience with all and giving the moment the time to resonate.

But from the devastation, with a reprise of “Beautiful City,” Goldstein and Schwartz offer a ray of hope:

“We can build a beautiful city

Yes we can. Yes we can

We can build a beautiful city

Not a city of angels

But finally a city of man”

“Godspell” Circle in the Square Theater, 1633 Broadway (at 50th Street). $125, $135 on Saturday nights. Circle in the Square’s “Godspell” box office opens Sept. 19 at 10 a.m. Group sales (for 10 or more tickets) are available by calling toll-free 1-855-DAY-BY-DAY. 212-239-6200. http://www.godspell.com.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top, Hunter Parrish, right, as Jesus, encounters the company of “Godspell,” (from left, front row: Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Telly Leung, Julia Mattison; second row: Lindsay Mendez, George Salazar, Wallace Smith; back row: Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson); second photo, Hunter Parrish as Jesus; third photo, Telly Leung, Wallace Smith and Lindsay Mendez open the second act with a bang; fourth photo, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle sings “Day by Day” to Hunter Parrish as Jesus; bottom photo, the finale.

Read my interview with director Daniel Goldstein here.

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