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Theatre Review: Godspell

January 25, 2012

GodspellOn one of my recent pilgrimages to NYC, I saw the new Broadway production of Godspell. This revival (the first on Broadway) represents the show's 40th anniversary. Because of the popularity of the original production, the release of the film version shortly thereafter, and the show's thriving life in schools and community theatres, many people bring their previous experiences with the show to bear when seeing this incarnation. But, like many other young people, I had never seen Godspell before, and I feel lucky to have made this brilliant interpretation my introduction.

One of the most intriguing features of this production is that it is presented in the round (at the Circle in the Square Theatre, right next to its sister show, Wicked, also featuring the music of Stephen Schwartz) and in a theatre with fewer than 750 seats. The communal nature of the show lends itself perfectly to this format; during the performance, you truly feel that you are bonded to the cast and the rest of the audience, together experiencing a unique performance among friends.

During the show, the cast members, each with his or her own idiosyncratic personality (and look, thanks to the fun, thrift store-inspired costumes) come together to present Biblical parables in short skits punctuated by songs. And while it does feel slightly instructional, almost like a caffeine-fueled Sunday school class at times, it doesn't feel solemnly preachy. Rather, the stories merely present lessons and stories that reinforce the ideas of fairness, love, and friendship. The dialogue is largely drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, so the language can be a bit archaic, but the energetic performances of the actors lend the parables a youthful relevance.

The show is largely marketed as a joyful, effervescent experience that will have you happily humming for days, and it is that, but that is not all that it is. Some of my favorite moments came when the lights were brought down and the music slowed, like during Uzo Aduba's emotional performance of "By My Side" and during Weeds star Hunter Parrish's moving rendition of "Beautiful City." A particularly memorable moment was Glee alum Telly Leung's incredible performance of "All Good Gifts;" this former Warbler shines as a solo star. But I have to say that along with Telly, Lindsay Mendez stole the show with her inspired, vocally virtuosic "Bless the Lord." That number alone was worth the price of admission.

There are a few critics who wish this Godspell were more like their concept of the original, but this updated version turns the show from a period piece into a timeless classic. There are plenty of contemporary pop-culture references that elicit bemused chuckles, as well as a few Broadway insider jokes. I was pleasantly surprised with Morgan James' hilarious performance of "Turn Back, O Man;" she slunk sexily across the stage and through the audience and gave more than a few witty one-liners, rounding out the comedic moments of the show.

Overall, I couldn't have been happier with Godspell. It is refreshing to see a show that doesn't rely on huge sets and special effects, but instead can stand on the strength of the score and the talent of the actors. This show brings to the table something that no other current Broadway show can; brilliant in its intimacy, it provides a ruthlessly cathartic emotional experience. I would defy anyone to resist being enchanted by it, and to leave without singing, humming, or at least thinking of one of the songs ("Day by Day," anyone?).

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