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Review - Godspell: In The Vernacular

Just like Pope Paul VI figured when The Vatican told followers to go ahead and celebrate mass in the vernacular, John-Michael Tebelak figured that if the musical he penned with Stephen Schwartz, based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, was going to connect with young people, it had to be done in their language. So when Godspell premiered Off-Broadway forty years ago, the son of God and his disciples were depicted as soft pop and folk singing flower children who were too busy learning how to spread love to be bothered with sex, drugs and burning their draft cards. Arriving on Broadway after Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, it was the first major rock musical that didn't scare the hell out of parents.

But Tebelak was blessed with the knowledge that the hippie culture wasn't going to last forever, so once Godspell was made available to regional and amateur groups he included a note with each script encouraging directors, designers and actors to freely update, vary and interpret the material as they like. The only constants necessary were the words spoken by Jesus, which are mostly quotes from scripture, and Schwartz's score.

So there's no nostalgia involved in director Daniel Goldstein's souped-up 21st Century reinvention of the show that's giddily moved into Circle in the Square. Sure, it's still a collection of songs and parable-themed sketches performed by a young and energetic cast, but while Godspell was created as something mildly counter-culture, this mounting is aggressively pop culture. It's almost a satirical statement that Jesus (Hunter Parrish) is presented as a golden boy television reality pop star with charisma gleaming out of an adorable adolescent smile and a singing voice perfectly suited for modern electronic enhancements.

The terrific supporting company of strong singers with good comic chops first appears in the Tower of Babel sequence representing Jean-Paul Sartre, L. Ron Hubbard, MariAnne Williamson and other noted philosophers and theologists, only to have their over-thinking dismissed in favor of the simple message that pleasing the Lord ain't brain surgery; it just requires an open heart.

The musical's original players represented the kind of 1970s youths that generally wouldn't be found attending what was the contemporary Broadway fare (aside from the smattering of rock musicals), but the new cast reflects the kind of Internet-educated, cast album loving Broadway geeks that have helped shows like Godspell's upstairs neighbors, Wicked, enjoy long, healthy runs. The ensemble gives the appearance of having been plucked from a college Drama Department's musical theatre division; slick, professional and as enthusiastic about vaudeville, high camp and lowdown blues as they are about hip-hop and contemporary Latino sounds. There's even a bit of improv involved when audience members are brought on stage for rounds of charades and Pictionary.

In one bit, Telly Leung lets fly with a quickly rattled string of movie star impersonations, including Barbara Streisand, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart and Vivian Leigh. References to Occupy Wall Street, Steve Jobs and Moammar Gadhafi are as appropriate today as jabs about Anita Bryant and Richard Nixon were in the original.

Michael Holland's new streetwise arrangements give the score a little more guts, lending a pronounced backbeat to many of the numbers and supplying more of a multi-ethnic urban pallet. Wallace Smith anchors the show vocally and emotionally with a strong masculine presence in the traditionally doubled-up roles of John the Baptist and Judas. Celisse Henderson and Lindsay Mendez sport knockout voices and George Salazar is aces at nerdy humor. Understudy Julia Mattison was a laugh-riot singing "Turn Back, O Man" as a 1960s style Bond girl ("Surprise! I slipped into your Playbill," she vamps to a customer.) , but the whole company, including Uzo Aduba, Nick Blaemire, and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, delivers on their moments to shine.

Set designer David Korins' makes great use of the tricky in-the-round space (it's really shaped like a small hockey rink) and Christopher Gattelli's bright and cheery dances come to a festive climax when trap doors in the floor reveal mini-trampolines that are incorporated into the choreography for "We Beseech Thee." It's by far the best use of trampolines in that building since the days of Via Galactica.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Hunter Parrish and Company; Bottom: Nick Blaemire (center) and Company.

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Known primarily for their excellent work with the Prospect Theatre Company (of which she is Producing Artistic Director and he is Resident Writer), the husband and wife team of director/bookwriter Cara Reichel and composer/lyricist/bookwriter Peter Mills are responsible for some of the most exciting and innovative musical theatre New York has seen since the company was founded in 1998. And I daresay that with Iron Curtain, they and their inspired cohorts fully succeed in presenting one of their most difficult and risk-taking concepts yet; a fast, loud and funny 1950s-style musical comedy.

To tell the story of a down and out American songwriting team that finds unexpected success whipping up a propaganda musical for the Soviet Union, Reichel, who this time limits herself to producing and directing, and Mills, who only pens the lyrics for this outing, team up with composer Stephen Weiner and bookwriter Susan DiLallo to replicated the fun and frisky techniques mastered by George Abbott, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross in The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, two musicals which happen to be referenced in their show. Iron Curtain is jam packed with catchy showtunes, clever lyrics, socko gags and zesty staging, along with a little sex, a little romance, with an emphasis on the latter.

Dry and cynical Todd Alan Johnson and peppy and romantic David Perlman make for a loveable duo as composer Howard Katz and lyricist Murray Finkel (As in many of these backstage stories, no bookwriter is mentioned.), who have high hopes for their new musical about a baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil (They call it Faustball.) until they're told that Adler and Ross already have a similar project heading for Broadway. Howard's ever-supportive fiancée-to-be, Shirley (a darling Maria Couch), finds an ad in Variety from a Production Company looking for new writers, unaware that it's actually the Soviet Union's Ministry of Musical Persuasion setting up temporary quarters looking for Broadway types to fix their work-in-progress Oh, Kostroma!, a musical drama concerning the friction between farmers and factory workers.

The boys are kidnapped and sent to Moscow, where an optimistic Nikita Khrushchev (John Fico) promises, "We will bury you... in fan mail!" But Finkel and Katz are stuck for fresh ideas until they realize they can just give their Faustball script a coat of red paint and re-title it Damnable Yankees.

Jenn Gambatese's substantial musical comedy chops are put to great use as Masha, the sweet, modest actress who develops a diva streak when plucked from the chorus to be the star, but who softens when the smitten Murray sings of taking her back to America for a marriage-minded "Five Year Plan." Costume designer Sidney Shannon puts her in a tight shimmering gown and a platinum blonde wig for "That's Capital," a Damnable Yankees production number a la Marilyn Monroe vamping "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"; a choreographic high point for Christine O'Grady, who also supplies a comical Harvest Moon Ballet and a grand Busby Berkeley-ish sequence utilizing a chorus of only eight.

Veteran Broadway character man Gordon Stanley shines as a musical theatre loving Communist official, with kooky support by Bobbi Kotula as a fetishy East German director and Aaron Ramey as a deadly Soviet.

Though Iron Curtain is a blast in the small basement space of the Baruch Performing Arts Center, this is a musical just bursting to be played on a Broadway-size scale. Remy Kurs' traditional period orchestrations for 8 pieces admirably give a taste of what the score could sound like with a pit full of musicians and the ensemble numbers just seem to be aching for more singers and dancers. I have a couple of quibbles; the way the story ends isn't totally satisfying and the curtain calls really should be capped with a final chorus of the catchy showbiz anthem, "If Not For Musicals," but Iron Curtain, even in its current miniature state, is a joyful night for those who appreciate musicals boasting fun songs, big laughs and a lot of heart.

Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Top: (standing) Robby Sharpe, Gordon Stanley and Aaron Ramey (sitting) Todd Alan Johnson and David Perlman (kneeling) Sara Brophy; Bottom: Sara Brophy, Robby Sharpe, James Patterson, Jenn Gambatese, Clint Carter and Ronn Burton.

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