Sometimes all you need is some good news. In today’s world of economic troubles, Tea Party debates and Occupy Wall Street, a little bit of joy couldn’t do any harm. Thankfully (thank whoever or whatever you want), that joy can be found at the Circe in the Square theater, where an exultant production of Godspell is now in performances.
Based on the Gospel of Matthew, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell is receiving its first Broadway revival since it opened Off-Broadway in 1971. With an updated book peppered with references to cultural and news and events, and a cast of young, effervescent actors and actresses with boundless energy, this revival is entertaining, uplifting, and surprisingly relevant.
The plot of Godspell – if you can call it that – tells the story of a group of disciples who are baptized by John the Baptist and then follow Jesus while he teaches them the Gospel of Matthew through stories and song. This loose structure can be confusing or frustrating, but under Daniel Goldstein’s direction, the show progresses briskly and clearly between each skit and musical number. Goldstein takes advantage of the round theater at the Circle in the Square, having the cast invite audience members onstage to participate in some of the scenes. (The staging of “We Beseech Thee” is especially enjoyable.) The set, designed by David Korins, encapsulates the bohemian, free spirit and David Weiner’s skillfully effective lighting and Miranda Hoffman’s festive costumes enhance the atmosphere very well. The suitably unpolished choreography is by Christopher Gattelli.
Due to its lack of narrative structure, the success of Godspell weighs heavily on the chemistry of its cast, and this young, extremely talented company does not buckle under its weight. Their energy, enthusiasm and joy at being in this show are tangible from the first moment they enter the stage. I haven’t felt an energy this electric since the 2009 revival of Hair, which also featured a cast of young actors celebrating their youth and joy.
Hunter Parrish, known for his work on the television show Weeds, plays Jesus and by doing so establishes himself as a leading man on Broadway. Parrish’s golden-boy good looks suit him well in this role, as he appears both innocent and ethereal simultaneously. As Jesus, Parrish serves as a narrator between the different songs and stories, a task he handles with ease. He gives Jesus a child-like joy that is truly authentic, and when he does express grief or sadness, the emotion is startlingly sincere.
As John the Baptist and then Judas, Wallace Smith gives a soulful performance, capturing the conflict and struggle that Judas faces when betraying the friend he loves. Smith’s rich vocals are displayed well during the famous song, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” and he is a steady presence onstage during each song and skit. When he and Parrish duet on the vaudeville-style song, “It’s All for the Best,” the effect is simply outstanding.
Each of the disciples, (played by Uzo Aduba, Nick Blameire, Celisse Henderson, Julia Mattinson, Telly Leung, Lindsay Mendez, George Salazar and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle), have the opportunity to perform onstage and they all excel for different reasons. Tagle’s rendition of “Day By Day,” easily the show’s most famous song, is lovely. When Aduba sings, “By My Side,” the effect is haunting. Belamiere is a wonderful comedic presence onstage during each of the skits. Henderson rocks out to the song, “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Mattison, an understudy for cast member Morgan James, who sings, “Turn Back, O Man” is a skilled improvisational performer and is obviously having a great time with a fun, sexy song. Leung’s montage of impressions during the story of The Prodigal Son brought down the house. Mendez is a vibrant presence onstage, especially during her solo, “Bless the Lord.” And Salazar, who performs the Act One closer, “Light of the World,” possesses a strong Broadway voice. As the parables are taught and the play progresses, the sense of community between the disciples develops and they learn to communicate with each other and share what Jesus is teaching them.
Much of the staging of Godspell is both uplifting and humorous, but there is an underlying current of bittersweet sadness to the show. This can be credited to the betrayal of Judas and the Passion of Christ, but also to the unspoken acknowledgement that there is still so much bad news in the world. Current events are frequently referenced throughout the show; Donald Trump, Facebook and Occupy Wall Street are just a few. This gag wears thin quickly, but its effect remains. Newspapers are utilized as props frequently, especially in the vaudeville-style song, “All For the Best,” when Jesus shreds the papers as he reminds his disciples that the kingdom of Heaven offers peace and rewards to people who suffer on the Earth. Regardless of audience members’ religious beliefs or lack thereof, the promise of good news is wonderful to hear. This production includes the song, “Beautiful City,” where Jesus says they can build a beautiful city – “Not a city of angels/But we can build a city of man.” It’s not a bad ambition to strive for.