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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Les gutman
Having survived the wildly variable strengths of high school and church drama clubs everywhere, Godspell is nothing if not durable. Now we have this production, originally staged off-off Broadway, with a rich cast that is uniformly strong: talented, committed and infectiously endearing. The question thus arises: can the show itself -- which musicalizes the story of Jesus as related in the Gospel According to St. Matthew in the distinct style of the late Sixties-- survive into a new millennium?
By any standard, Godspell has been hugely successful, so much so that any comments one might make about its diffuse, hard-to-follow story line seem irrelevant. I certainly won't regurgitate them here. Begun as a college project by its book writer, Godspell catapulted to attention after Stephen Schwartz (on the heels of his debut musical Pippin) came aboard to put meat on its lanky bones. It opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1971 before transferring uptown to the Promenade, where it ran for an astounding 2,124 performances. It then enjoyed a further transfer to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway where it ran for an additional 66 weeks.
Schwartz has revisited his project in an effort to lubricate its move into the year 2000. This, we are told, includes both new lyrics and "updated" dialogue. (For the record, the original production credited Schwartz with writing "new lyrics" since many of them were lifted directly from religious texts so what we have now are thus really "new, new lyrics".) Shawn Rozsa has also directed it (and had it designed and re-orchestrated) in a way that attempts to eradicate the show's hippie/flower children qualities (which, also for the record, were not a part of the original conception, which called for Jesus to be a leader of a group of clowns).
These efforts, despite the estimable achievements of the cast to which I will return below, are painfully unsuccessful. Schwartz's updating consists of adding lame contemporary references (Johnnie Cochrane, using "lifelines" a la TV's Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and so on) that trade on the lowest, most banal form of recognitional humor. The overall feel of the show has now been transformed into one so closely resembling Rent that mentioning it seems unavoidable. The musical arrangements, supported by a fine on-stage band, are better, convincingly escaping the most obviously dated markers (except in the finale which seems destined to retain a "Kumbaya" feel). This reëngineering is accomplished generally without being too obvious about it, an exception being the addition of what seems like an obligatory but uncomfortable rap arrangement.
Shawn Rozsa's direction, which too-often follows the "stand-in-a-row, stare-at-the-spotlights" school, is hampered by the addition of three rows of on-stage seats. Because of this, I am inclined to forgive its fussiness. The effects of this stage arrangement on Ovi Vargas's choreography are even more acute. (It seems the producer has balanced the books at the expense of the staging.)
The way Godspell forces the audience's enthusiasm by involving it in the show is unfortunate, but it's an element of the original that is not resisted here. The audience is invited (dragged) on-stage at the intermission, and encouraged to dance. Later, one cast member entertains by bringing out a miniature football which he throws to members of the audience, while another passes through the aisles blowing bubbles.
Back at last to the cast. The number of unknown young performers who have gone on to become stars after cutting their teeth on Godspell is impressive: Gilda Radner, Jeremy Irons, Joe Mantegna, Victor Garber and Andrea Martin among them. This production, which includes some who are fresh out of school and others who've already made it to Broadway, boasts some particularly strong "breakout" talent.
Chief among these is Chad Kimball, whose engaging stage presence and expressive, energetic performance is bested only by his fine voice. Among the others, Barrett Foa (who plays Jesus) is as hard-working as he is charismatic (far more than you can say for the more-celebrated Jesus of Glenn Carter in the recent Jesus Christ Superstar revival on Broadway). Catherine Carpenter offered a fine rendition of the show's most famous song, "Day by Day," trumped by the duet she sings with the also-excellent Lucia Giannetta, "By My Side" (the only song not written by Schwartz -- lyrics by Jay Hamburger, music by Peggy Gordon). And although they are heavily type-cast, I very much liked Capathia Jenkins (the ubiquitous large powerfully-voiced African American woman), Eliseo Roman (the show's Nuyorican representative) and the appealing Tim Cain, who first came to my attention in a terrific show in the East Village called Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown.
There are songs in Godspell that are a pleasure to hear again, especially because of these actors' efforts. Go and enjoy listening to them performed very, very well without expecting much more, and you won't be disappointed.
LINKS TO OTHER SHOWS MENTIONED ABOVE
Jesus Christ Superstar . . .Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown
The Internet Theatre Bookshop "Virtually Every Play in the World" --even out of print plays
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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