Tuesday, November 8, 2011

REVIEW: Godspell

Review of the November 5 matinee performance at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, 30 minutes, including one intermission. Starring Hunter Parrish, Wallace Smith, Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, Celisse Henderson, Telly Leung, Julia Mattison, Lindsay Menendez, George Salazar and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle. Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.  Choreography by Christopher Gattelli.  Directed by Daniel Goldstein.

The production of Godspell which opened last night at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway has so perplexed me that I am completely changing my way of evaluating shows.  Instead of a final grade to start with, I am going to assess theatrical, conceptual and performance components separately.  Then I will average them together to arrive at a more comprehensive "grade," with my overall "gut feeling" about a show ultimately deciding any close calls.

So why is it that Godspell perplexed me so?  Well, I can't recall a show I've seen in years that has made me feel so conflicted.  Conflicted about my reaction to it - loved it while I was watching each part of it, resenting that the overall sum wasn't nearly as good as its parts.  Conflicted about how much all of my senses were picking up and still not adding up - which more than once took me "out of the show" at the expense of being able to fully pay attention to other parts.  Conflicted about the much discussed updates - why I think they were all viable choices which did not take away from the show at all, and yet how they really point out the weakness in the concept and performance of it.  And conflicted about the fact that I am not particularly religious and yet still managed to feel offended by some of it, all while realizing the show is as innocuous as a children's Bible story book.

  • The Script/Score/Revival Updates: A-
The Tower of Babel
If there was ever a show that demanded an original concept with each production of it, Godspell is it.  It demands that current events, trends and recent history play into the parables being portrayed on the stage, at once showing us that they matter TODAY and that they have a timeless universality about them.  Funny how scripture verses with things like the iPad, Donald Trump and the Electric Slide interpolated into them make sense today and take us back to our long ago Sunday school days, right?  And so it makes complete sense that a few hundred modern cultural references, visuals and dance steps slip into these stories mostly without feeling shoehorned in.  As the song says, "learn your lessons well."  One of the beauties of the show is that adding all of those touchstones makes it relevant, like watching the evening news (they even reference Occupy Wall Street), and not so religious feeling that you feel any sense of guilt, shame or remorse about how you live your life, certainly three things I've, sadly, learned to associate with organized religion.

But let's be honest: Godspell has never really been all that much about religion, but about those nifty parables - children's stories, really - grounded by the story of the last days of Jesus Christ mostly toward the end of the show.  Think of it as Jesus Christ Superstar lite.  Composer Stephen Schwartz, who has had much success since he took this first stab at theatrical legitimacy, has taken his already pleasant score (including some real gems and a classic in "Day By Day") and updated it considerably.  Before the score had a uniformly hippie/"love-in" feel to it - simple melodies, simply, organically orchestrated.  Now, the score has been largely refinished creating a series of pastiche numbers (fear not fans, "Day By Day" and "On the Willows" remain blissfully unchanged).  (I'd like to nominate Michael Holland for a Tony Award immediately - his orchestrations and vocal arrangements are superb.)  The most clever, by far is "All for the Best," which very cleverly imposes George Michael's "Faith" on Judas' part.  Irony?  Symbolism?  Both! Other musical updates aren't as crafty, but all add to, rather than detract from, the score, as they make the score as up to date as the scripture interpolations.  But it also makes it Godspell lite - think Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with a bummer ending.  Wisely, most of the changes are in the first act, making the considerably more serious second act grounded and very close to moving.  Very close.

  • The Design Elements: Lighting Design: A+, Scenic Design: A+, Costume Design: D
To paraphrase another show from this season, "with considerable updating, comes considerable conceptual responsibility."  Two of the three designers seem to be on the same page, and the third is probably more a victim of other outside forces than any individual fault.  But first the good news.  I can't imagine just how difficult it must be to design for the Circle in the Square Theatre, but one can only imagine how hard it must be to create a setting and still allow everyone to see everything (ask the designers of The Miracle Worker, I guess).  In a way, lighting designer David Weiner has the opposite problem: how do you light a show that uses the whole place as its stage without blinding the audience, and in this case, the cast and musicians, too!  But he conquers it masterfully.  Not only are there interesting lighting things happening on the stage itself, with quick changing patterns and colorful beams that help create focus, but the seating arrangement has also become part of this palette.  Looking out in any direction you see your fellow man (so often referred to in the scripture and songs) bathed in in moody hues that allows for an obvious communal feeling that Godspell practically begs for. 

The Last Supper

Imagine my luck at seeing two shows in one day where both sets were designed by David Korins, who could very well be a two-time Tony nominee this season (Chinglish is his other design) with this endlessly creative environmental design.  You know from the second the doors to the house open where this Godspell takes place - onstage and backstage at a run down old theatre.  But faster than you can say "Follies" you realize that this old place - despite its outdated lighting fixtures, cracked overhead proscenium and that infamous drip of water - still has a lot of life left in it.  The lack of walls and set pieces don't stop Korins from creating place for Biblical magic to happen.  I didn't think I'd be seeing Jesus walk on water or disciples bouncing on trampolines or The Great and Powerful Oz as three high priests, but I did, and it was truly delightful. (Kudos, too, to the special effects designed by Chris Silber.)

Set Design by David Korins

But then there are the costumes, the one design element that has the opportunity to tell the most in this in the round setting.  Designed by Miranda Hoffman, it is clear that work has been done on the costumes throughout the preview period - Jesus' costume is completely different than in any of the publicity photos, and there are differences in those of Judas and Telly, too.  While I like the costume change for Jesus - he now wears a tongue-in-cheek baseball jersey, jeans and glowing florescent gym shoes - it is the costuming for the rest of the cast that is troubling.  They start out in modern day professional and dress casual attire during the Tower of Babel sequence, where we hear from them as some of the world's greatest minds (Socrates and gang) signalled by their names on their brief cases, gym bags and even a pizza box.  Then Jesus shows up to silence those thoughts and make us focus on his more basic teachings (I will get no more religious than this generic description) in boxers and a wife-beater t shirt.   Then we see Jesus "get dressed," going through an old theatrical trunk to select his ultimate garb.  That transformation is an apt one (despite how seeing him first in skivvies is disturbing) because it shows us theatricality AND a move from "real life" clothing to the garb of the anointed.

The Godspell Company

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast reassembles completely transformed.  And the transformation is an ugly one, with each costume feeling conspicuously self-conscious, too on purpose.  The trouble is, we see no all-important transformation from listener to transformed disciple for any of these people.  In an instant we are disconnected.  Instead of seeing ourselves, as in the opening scene, we are no longer one of "the people" - we are watching a freak show of odd balls trying to out-do each other in craziness.  I'm guessing that had the costumes not been so obvious and the only thing to look at a lot of the time, so much of the blame for this disconnect would lay at Ms. Hoffman's feet.  In truth, though, the lion's share of the blame is squarely with the director.

  • Choreography: A; Direction/Staging: A; Direction/Concept: D-
Christopher Gattelli has created some terrific, high energy dances that use the whole stage, constantly change direction so that the audience can see it all, and even contribute to the interpolation of all things 21st century.  He has managed to make the Electric Slide, the Chicken Dance and the Macarena relevant and fun without a wedding reception in sight.  His all over the stage dancing fits in perfectly with director Daniel Goldstein's excellent staging.  Inherent in the potential pitfalls of in-the-round staging is not letting the majority of the audience see any part of the staging.  Instead, the movement here is seamless and constantly on the move so that at no time is anyone in the audience unable to see something important - even the Crucifixion is staged such that everyone gets to see Jesus in his final minutes.  Inherent in staging the many parables in the show is the possible pitfall of being too much or not enough.  Not really a problem here - each story is told creatively and distinctly. 

The Good Samaritan

Unfortunately, while each parable is creatively told, I can remember only three.  First, "Turn Back, O Man", the act two opener, is performed by one of the best understudies I have ever seen.  Ever.  Second, there was the "Learn Your Lessons Well" number, because it is so well-performed and because I loved the progression from ukulele to electric guitar.  And third, I really enjoyed the Good Samaritan story with the excellent use of cast and a ladder of all things.  I'd like to think that my admiration that was uniformly high after ALL of the parables, that days later, I'd remember more than three of them.  Perhaps, they weren't as distinct as I thought. 

I mentioned earlier that we see Jesus transform from everyman 21st century style to storyteller/benevolent truth teller.  Is the idea that being in this space, a rundown, unused theatre, a place for stripping away all of today's problems and theatrically get in touch with the basic truths of how man should treat man?  I think so, considering each number is a mini play, and they all roll by like a vaudeville bill.  The transformation of Jesus is the key to making this really work.  But since no other character goes through this change and instead simply reappears ready for silly fun, it is jarring and a big disconnect.  The bottom line is that people today just don't behave this way anymore (if we ever really did).  An automatic group mentality would never happen today, just because one person says listen to me. (Those end of the world followers not withstanding.) 

"Learn Your Lessons Well":
Celisse Henderson

All of this would be easier to understand, and more importantly, resonate with importance if the group which represents "us" went through a transformation from self-absorbed and self-important to global thinking, peace-loving people bent on spreading universal lessons of the Bible.  Physically, that could be accomplished, as number by number, the cast strips away the business suits and picks from the same costume trunk Jesus does.  And emotionally/mentally, the audience would then transform with the cast.  The ending would have much more gravitas and meaning beyond the obvious.  The way it stands, the whole thing has the feel of being incomplete to me.  As brilliant as the staging often is, it doesn't follow through with what the opening scene starts.  If Goldstein wanted to do a show with its original hippie feel, he should have done a straightforward revival of Godspell.

  • The Cast: B-
If there was ever a case to be made for an ensemble Tony Award, the cast of Godspell should be among its first nominees.  When they are acting as a whole, you sense a unity that is staggering and a potential for true greatness.  With one exception, they are completely a unit.  With a couple of exceptions, they are equally good individually.

Uzo Aduba (left) and Hunter Parrish and Wallace Smith (right)

The group is spoiled only by the overacting, incessant mugging and complete lack of subtlety of Uzo Aduba.  One of my least favorite of sayings is "[fill in the blank] takes me completely out of the show," but the truth is Ms. Aduba does just that for me several times.  And the cast as individuals lacks in only two areas: Jesus and Judas.  Wallace Smith as Judas makes virtually no impression on me, and except for being listed in the Playbill, I wouldn't be able to tell you what, if anything he sings.  In fact, I only remember him at all because another actor refers to Mr. Smith as "Purple Rain" in pointing out his gaudy, Prince-like plum colored jacket.  Most disappointing though, is Hunter Parrish, who is one of my favorites (I loved him in Spring Awakening).  Here, he is a bizarre one-note entity, memorable not for a much needed charisma (wasn't Jesus charismatic?), but rather for a consistently vacuous smile and a self-righteous Mr. Rogers-esque tone that is absolutely maddening.  You'd think Jesus was trying to hypnotize his believers.  Parrish sings well and the calm voice thing works well in act two at the Last Supper and Crucifixion, but before that I find it hard to believe anyone would follow this man.

Each ensemble member has a song that they lead and they are all very good singers.  Nick Blaemire and George Salazar do their best work as part of the group, with Blaemire being quite limber and athletic and Salazar having terrific comic chops, particularly in the "sheep vs rams" scene.  Lindsay Menendez really seems to "get it" in  terms of what the show is about, tempering a zany free-for-all good time girl with some terrific subtext in the serious scenes. 

Anna Maria Perez deTagle and Hunter Foster

Telly Leung plays a tune on the piano

Anna Maria Perez de Tagle is simply a sweet little thing that has enormous stage presence and does "Day By Day" proud. Celisse Henderson reminds me of the late Nell Carter - all sass, vim and vigor.  She does the song "Learn Your Lessons Well" great justice, both in terms of meaning and fun.  I suppose in an ensemble heavy show it might seem unfair to single anyone out, but two of the group really stand out: Telly Leung and Julia Mattison.  Mattison, who is on for an injured Morgan James, is a delightful presence throughout - from the beginning of the show when she looks appropriately awkward and embarrassed in her ridiculous costume (I loved her instantly for that) all the way to her scene stealing "Turn Back O Man" retooled to be a James Bond-ish number that allows her to hilariously vamps around the whole theatre.  Remember her name.  And Mr. Leung dazzles with a voice that seems sent from Heaven, a presence that many actors spend their entire careers trying to achieve, and comedic chops that are a riot - you should hear him do impressions!

  • My Personal Reaction: C
I really enjoyed the production as it was happening.  It is a lot of fun.  Still, I had a nagging feeling throughout that something was missing.  I know now, that despite so much that I really liked and appreciated, my reluctance stems from a lack of conceptual follow through.  Another Broadway show, The Book of Mormon, succeeds where this Godspell ultimately fails: the former has fun with its religious themes, but with a genuine sincerity.  The latter has plenty of fun, but only at the very end does it feel like they mean any of it for real.

(Photos by Jeremy Daniel)

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