Oh, ‘Godspell’: Modernized to entertain today’s masses
It’s a premise you might know: A benevolent shepherd teaches open-hearted pupils how to be better people in the name of salvation. Stephen Schwartz’s hits (“Day by Day,” “Turn Back, O Man”) might also sound familiar from the original musical off-Broadway in 1971 (it closed on Broadway in 1977), or the subsequent movie in 1973.
This family musical might not exactly go part and parcel with a happy ending, but at least you can put off thinking about that until after the first act. And parents won’t have to worry about children getting clobbered over the head with religion, as the story is told through approachable parables padded in high-energy humor and pop culture references.
Hunter Parrish (“Spring Awakening,” “Weeds”) plays a handsome, happy Jesus whose grinning innocence sometimes belies the intelligence that such a powerful leader of men would likely possess. Nine ensemble actors answer to their real names and showcase individual strengths onstage; each steals the spotlight in turn during his or her featured solo. There’s a pure, contagious energy not only onstage but on all sides of the theater-in-the-round — the highlight of which is wooden floorboards that open to reveal splashy pools of water or even trampolines.
“Godspell” will always be hampered by the setback of being, well, “Godspell.” It lacks a cohesive plot and is often best received when it’s used as a canvas for a theme or ideology, aside from the obvious. But it’s hard to fault Daniel Goldstein’s production for that omission, considering it leaves room for us to appreciate the cast and its enviable intimacy (we want to get onstage and join the disciples, and are actually welcomed to during intermission).
The show’s biggest detriment is the sudden shift to sobriety in the second act. We haven’t been able to know Jesus as more than a mouthpiece before his downfall, so the sudden bid for our emotional involvement is what one might call a Hail Mary.