Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 7, 2011
Godspell Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak. Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Daniel Goldstein. Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli. Music direction by Charlie Alterman. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Miranda Hoffman. Lighting design by David Weiner. Sound design by Andrew Keister. Cast: Hunter Parrish, 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, Julia Mattison.
Just don't let the title, or your preconceptions about the content, dissuade you. Based though it is on the Bible's Gospel of Matthew, the overt religious content is on the light side. Sure, there are technically characters based on Jesus and Judas (though neither character is ever named outside the Playbill), and the book (assembled by original conceiver and director John-Michael Tebelak) and score (by Stephen Schwartz, at the absolute top of his form) rely on parables, verses, and other direct quotations that couldn't come from anywhere else. But the message here is of generic inclusiveness and togetherness, along with a few dollops of advice on how to be a better person. Even the most devout atheist will find little to object to.
In other words, this production, which has been sparklingly directed by Daniel Goldstein and smartly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, achieves the kind of warmly communal harmony the recent revival of Hair so mechanically sought. The inaugural version of this show was more or less a contemporary of the inaugural version of that one (1971 versus 1967), but as a property it's aged considerably better. Its open-handed exploration of its topics and teachings is far more timeless than the machinations of one relatively short-lived political movement.
It helps, of course, that the show surrounding the numbers was designed to be endlessly malleable, with its presentation of its spoken and sung sections fixed, but everything else open to debate. This has let each new generation and each new culture devise a show that speaks to them and their concerns about faith and the world, in exactly the language they speak (and with the costumes they wear and the props they use). This production escorts the "it takes a village" credo of this show to heretofore unheard-of levels offstage — crowdsourcing was used to finance upwards of $600,000 of the required capitalization — but onstage the devotion is no less total and alluring.
Goldstein, who got his start with Godspell at the Paper Mill Playhouse five years ago, has seen to it there's never a dull or empty moment. Whether it's games of Pictionary or charades, descents into rock concerts or old-fashioned buck-and-wing show biz, diversions into science and technology (the Last Supper is staged around a pit of fog-emitting dry ice), or even current culture (Kanye West is among the references), invention is ripe. David Korins's decaying-proscenium hides a myriad of pits, flying objects, pools of water, and even trampolines that keep the cast buzzing and bouncing in every moment. David Weiner's lights capture all the intimacy of the space while ensuring you never miss a detail of it or of the performers romping about at the center of it all.
The company assembled here, led by Hunter Parrish (Jesus) and Wallace Smith (Judas), is as ingratiating and buoyant an ensemble as Broadway attracts these days. Each cast member has a distinct look, sound, and personality, with nary a cookie-cutter dancer or beautiful-but-bland singer in sight. Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson, Telly Leung, Lindsay Mendez (who sings a killer "Bless the Lord"), George Salazar, and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle are playful, fun, and unpredictable; vaguely dressed (by crack costume designer Miranda Hoffman) as hipsters, but with enough off-kilter suspenders, tights, or jackets to register as uncharacteristic free-thinkers. At the performance I attended, understudy Julia Mattison subbed for the billed Morgan James, and she was as confidently herself as everyone else was.
So much is so right — down to the new orchestrations (for band members scattered throughout the theater) and arrangements by Michael Holland and music direction by Charlie Alterman — that dwelling on its few deficits seems almost unnecessary. But the show is overly amplified and oddly loud, even when it's supposed to be quiet, which saps it of some of its atmosphere of impromptu fun. And the action slows almost to a crawl in the middle of the second act, as Goldstein struggles to keep his ideas flowing.
This is only a momentary downturn, however. For most of its two-hour-and-fifteen-minute running time, nothing can stop this Godspell from exploding straight into your heart and — dare I say it? — soul. If indeed spirituality is old-fashioned and outdated, someone forgot to tell everyone involved with this production. And thank goodness: The honesty, charm, and appeal everyone displays shows that, sometimes at least, theatregoers' prayers are indeed answered.