Here comes the first-ever Broadway revival of “Godspell,” and understandably so. The 1971 Off Broadway hit enjoyed a strong five-year run, after which it moved to Broadway for an additional year. But the feel-good “Day by Day” tuner was always more Off Broadway than on; dress it up in $5 million togs and it still feels slight. Boomer nostalgia and modern-day marketing might alleviate this, but that’s not the main problem. In attempting to bring this anachronistic telling of the age-old gospel up to date, “Godspell” uncomfortably straddles two eras and two styles.
Modernized revisions of ancient tales have been amusing audiences for more than a century. You could certainly take something like the Greatest Story Ever Told and add contemporary songs, up-to-the-minute gags, both the Chicken Dance and the Macarena, and jokes about Lindsay Lohan or about Steve Jobs using an iPad in Heaven. But such a new musical, written today, would certainly not be filled with songs of the soft rock variety; yesterday’s cutting-edge score is way too comfortable for a 2011 protest piece. And yes, there’s a joke about “Occupy 50th Street.”
A current-day “Godspell” would not feature a gang you’d have met on St. Mark’s Place during the Nixon Years, wearing hippy-ish costumes. (Jesus no longer dons that Superman shirt; it makes an appearance, but is rejected.) What we get at Circle in the Square is a show and a sensibility which drift aimlessly between today and the dark ages of forty years ago.
The authors, or rather whoever is in control, seem to have added each and every gag that comes to mind; good, relevant or not. There is even a line — or perhaps merely an ad lib — about how hard it is to get “Book of Mormon” tickets. This scattershot approach adds laughs but diminishes what could be the power of “Godspell.”
Director Daniel Goldstein makes his Broadway debut, and not impressively so. This long-in-gestation revival arose from his 2006 staging of the show at the Paper Mill Playhouse. On the plus side is the score by Stephen Schwartz (here credited for “music and new lyrics”). The songs are indeed comfortable and nostalgically sweet. Schwartz (“Wicked”) did not get much respect for this show initially, but it is tuneful and effective. The new orchestrations by Michael Holland often try too hard to modernize the score; Schwartz doesn’t need the help.
Strongest aspect of the affair is the casting: This “Godspell” is especially well sung. Standing out are Lindsay Mendez (on “Bless the Lord” and elsewhere) and Telly Leung (on “All Good Gifts”). The one big letdown comes from Hunter Parrish, the Jesus of the occasion. Parrish has an innocent smile, big blonde hair, and plenty of teeth; he doesn’t look like a Ken doll, exactly, but he sings like one. Wallace Smith, as John/Judas, is marginally stronger but not up to the level of the ensemble. One of the surprising bright spots is the entr’acte reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well,” sung by Leung (at piano) with Mendez and Smith.
Yes, there is an audience for this “Godspell,” and perhaps they can be reached. But the strengths of the original have been so weighted down by mirthless improvements that it makes for a very long two hours.