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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Celia Keenan-Bolger and Mary Faber.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

An unfamiliar substance is bursting like a geyser from the Playwrights Horizons building on 42nd Street. It's viscous, messy, and unquestionably addictive, even if it hasn't yet adhered itself to the inhabitants of most theaters on the Main Stem. And it has an odd, yet strangely lilting, name: personality.

It would be folly to expect Saved, the new musical by Michael Friedman, John Dempsey, and Rinne Groff, to alter the course of a genre growing increasingly dependent on charisma-free stars to fill its stages. But it makes such a compelling case for the casting of people that look, sound, and behave like no one else that you can't help but thrill at the verve on display that no show in town understands as well.

There's Celia Keenan-Bolger, the rising young star whose cross-eyed glares and puffed-cheek intensity suggest she devours confliction with her morning corn flakes; straight man extraordinaire John Dossett; and brass belter Julia Murney essaying the leads. The secondary roles find in-ascent traditional heartthrobs like Aaron Tveit and Curtis Holbrook beside ruthlessly modern comic actress Mary Faber. There's even a corrosively funny Morgan Weed on hand to play every imaginable variation of deadpan dread.

Each of them, as well as the extra handful of actors who round out the ensemble, has discovered how to live in his or her own world while convincingly maintaining residence with everyone else. Thirteen cast members, 13 discernible voices, 13 identifiable individuals: No musical these days is so lucky, yet your eyes and your ears can't lie, right?

Right. Amazing as this group is, it's composed only of humans. Thus, no one present possesses the supernatural ability needed to truly unify this unsteady show, which attempts to blend the best parts of Bare, Falsettos, Spring Awakening, and Hairspray, while evincing no understanding of what made those shows work (or not work, as the case may be).

The problems begin at the source, Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban's 2004 film Saved!. A vicious satire on faith-based education and hypocrisy, it doesn't scream "musical" and doesn't even whisper "feel good." It does, however, offer a bevy of colorfully drawn teen characters dealing with issues of perpetual relevance and currently holding particular hot-topic status in the theatre: homosexuality, adolescent pregnancy, and the trouble getting parents to understand either.

Unfortunately, the type of belt-sander edges that so particularize the film are commonly considered (and not always without reason) poor theatre business sense. So Friedman (music and lyrics) and Dempsey and Groff (book and lyrics) toned things down, changing the atmosphere from that of Grease in 1972 to Grease in 2007: just the tiniest bit provocative, but mostly cuddly and inoffensive. It's the kind of show you could take your fundamentalist mother to without fear of excommunication.

They have, in short, stripped Saved! of not just its exclamation point, but all its punctuation, leaving it the stage-musical equivalent of a run-on sentence. Every aspect of the story is addressed in the blandest musical-comedy terms, starting with the central plot about the believing Mary (Keenan-Bolger), a popular student at American Eagle Christian High School who sleeps with her basketball-captain boyfriend Dean (Tveit) to cure him of his gay inclinations and ends up bearing burdens she didn't bargain for.

Among those is trouble with her passionately Christian friend Hilary Faye (Faber), who professes love for everyone but demonstrates it through the stereotypical veil of intolerance - neither Dean nor Mary is safe from Hilary Faye's "help." Meanwhile, Hilary Faye's atheist and wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Holbrook) teams up with the school's most vocal non-believer, the Jewish transfer student Cassandra (Weed), as an anti-spiritual spirit squad. (Though when the time comes to play their part in Mary's story, they're the only helpful and caring souls to be found.) The school's hard-core disciplinarian pastor, Skip (Dossett), is the usual obstacle to be overcome for all the kids, and faces his own challenges with lust for Mary's mother, Lillian (Murney).

Like the book, the score wants to have its Communion wafer and eat it, too, with songs that jab at their subject rather than embodying it. Hilary Faye has a song in which the word "love" is repeated 28 times in rapid succession, the first-act finale finds the school's students praying for absolution from sins they don't want to give up, Pastor Skip is so wishy-washy in song it's difficult to accept him as the threat to personal freedom he's intended to represent.

Van Hughes and the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Only with "Make It True," a production number for Skip's son Patrick (Van Hughes) celebrating his triumphant return from missionary work in Africa, does the show give in to the temptation of shameless entertainment (and find worthwhile uses for Sergio Trujillo's energetic choreography). The songs trade primarily on vague emotions, ideas, or dialogue that hardly need to be sung: The kind of prickling, achingly specific numbers Friedman contributed for the Civilians' Off-Broadway musicals Gone Missing and (I Am) Nobody's Lunch are utterly absent here. So is any directorial point of view, though Gary Griffin holds order with his efficient but unexceptional staging.

The stellar company, then, is even more necessary. Keenan-Bolger is dynamite, so gawkily innocent as she toes the invisible lines between virginal and trampy and between devout and doubting. Holbrook, last seen as a scintillating dance soloist in Xanadu, moves so well in his wheelchair that his cartwheel during a dream sequence is somewhat anticlimactic. Faber is riotous as Hilary Faye, but never gives herself entirely over to caricature in a role that all but screams for it. Everyone else has at least a dozen moments that capture your attention, if only for a few seconds at a stretch.

But while the performers have been allowed to trade on their innate special qualities, the show they're in has been shoved into the perceived, tired mold of other generic hits. As a result, Saved itself needs to be saved, from the expectations that led everyone involved to sacrifice the uniqueness that got everyone so fired up about it in the first place.

Through June 22
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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