Godspell, the musical that pushed the New Testament to its hippy-dippy extreme, was first performed in 1970, the same year that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice put together their rock-opera passion play album Jesus Christ Superstar. It was a good time for the greatest story ever sung, but time has not been good to those productions, particularly Godspell, which has been revived on Broadway after a 35-year absence.
At its best, the musical is a good-natured attempt to make the Christian gospels more relatable, transforming dry scripture into a rollicking troupe show. But one look at the apostles’ purposefully garish bowling shirts, stevedore caps, leopard-skin tights, overalls, and mismatched knee-socks and it’s clear that this modernization needs modernization. The cast that once came off as the born-again overflow from Hair now resembles a coterie of drama geeks who got sugar-high on lemon squares and took a run through their high school’s costume closet. And the songs that once fused stage pop with Biblical themes — including the hit ”Day By Day” — now sound like the sort of spiritual adult contemporary you can find any given Sunday in your local megachurch.
It’s not that efforts haven’t been made to update the musical, but they’re generally pretty broad. The pop-culture references smack of the lameness of an uncle who still occasionally exclaims, ”Yeah, baby!” in his best Austin Powers voice. For example, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus now consists of Donald Trump being sent to hell to be tortured by Muammar Gaddafi and Satan doing a Borat impression. That right there should be a good litmus test as to whether this iteration of Godspell is right for you.
If there is one saving grace, it’s that the production is never a slog. The whole two-and-a-half hours are high energy, heavy on audience participation, and occasionally involve trampolines. Weeds star Hunter Parrish’s corn-fed ebullience feels strangely appropriate for his role as Jesus, and it’s hard not to love the fact that, during intermission, the cast mingled with the audience over tiny shots of cheap-vintage Blood of Christ. But there’s a thin line between energetic and manic, and the cast of Godspell vaults theatrically over that line too many times to count. It’s possible the revival will come off as relevant good fun to a certain section of the God-fearing, Glee-loving populace, but for the most part it feels like a lot of taking the Lord’s name in vain. C
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)