Jesus’ ‘Godspell’ knocks on today’s door

Despite more than 20 centuries since the birth of Christ, the values and teachings of Jesus still ring true in contemporary terms — or at least that’s what the new revival of Stephen Schwartz’s timeless musical “Godspell” proves.

Under the direction of Daniel Goldstein, the formerly famous off-Broadway production portrays the ‘gospel according to Matthew’ in modern times. The opening prologue featured the cast sporting backpacks, jackets, handbags and other accessories labeled with the names of scholars, philosophers, religious leaders and forward thinkers such as Socrates, Aquinas, Galileo and L. Ron Hubbard, but cast members were also calling and texting on their phones and BlackBerrys. Later in the musical, a reference is made to Steve Jobs in heaven as well as the iPad tablet being the latest version of Bible texts. Other mentions of current events and people include the Occupy Wall Street movement, Donald Trump, Gaddafi’s death and Obama’s stimulus package.

In addition to modernizing the musical by referencing current events, “Godspell” also adopts a youthful and energetic vibe because of the young cast, which stars 24-year-old Hunter Parrish as Jesus, Wallace Smith as Judas, and “Hannah Montana” star Anna Maria Perez De Tagle, “Glee” star Telly Leung, Celisse Henderson, George Salzar, Lindsay Mendez, Morgan James, Ubo Aduba, and Nick Blaemire as disciples. Clad in jeans and a white button down shirt over his white t-shirt, Parrish lacks the long, flowing robes or long brown, wavy hair one might typically envision with Jesus. However, Parrish, best known for his character Silas Botwin in the television series “Weeds,” brings charisma and energy to his performance, becoming the magnetic individual that everyone wants as a friend. He does this by drawing other cast members as well as audience members with his infectious smiles, leaps in the air and laughter.

The contemporary feel of characters and materials, the use of impersonations, props and charades becomes a new way to retell Jesus’s parables as well as teach His rules, lessons and beatitudes. George Salazar’s narration becomes comical as he voices for Lindsay Mendez as she lip syncs to his words. Other scenes also have a similar tongue-in-cheek commentary, such as when Leung impersonates famous movie scenes such as Scarlett O’Hara’s (Vivien Leigh) phrase — “I will never go hungry again” — in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.” In another memorable scene, pieces of newsprint are used to create the head, arms, legs and torso of the man who is eventually saved by the Good Samaritan.  Similarly, lights and triangular materials are used to replicate the talking heads and mouths of the Pharisees who questioned Jesus.

Despite the light-heartedness and storytelling at the center of Act I, the conclusion of Act II takes on a more somber note. This is where Judas’s inevitable betrayal takes place as well as Jesus’s breakdown. “Could you not stay awake for one hour?” Jesus tells his disciples after he comes back to find them asleep. The “Finale” is particularly emotional, showing Parrish raised on a crucifix, ending with Smith and the rest of the cast carrying his limp body off stage.

The fact that the Circle in the Square theatre showcases ‘theatre in the round’ adds to the intimate element of the production. Julia Mattison, Morgan James’ understudy, comments on this “circular” element of the theatre firsthand after she says her lyrics, “I’m going to the front of the theatre” in the number “Turn Back O Man.” (“There is not front, there’s only this circle,” Mattison said.) Yet the stage provides the audience with a forum to see Jesus’s stories unfold — and the stories would be seen differently from every vantage point. Audience members are invited on stage at various points in the performance, and the orchestra, which consists of guitar, bass and piano players, are scattered among the audience. Trap doors beneath the stage are also utilized effectively to create a water site for Jesus’s baptism in the opening number “Prepare Ye” as well as trampolines for the cast to jump on.

Despite 40 years since it was last performed on the Broadway stage, “Godspell” is sure to entertain generations to come in its contemporary 2011 revival.

“Godspell” is performed at the Circle in the Square on W. 50th St. next to the Gershwin Theatre in New York City. Tickets can be purchased here.   

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