Godspell: Forgive Me, Lord

Pity the unfortunate theatre critic who must review a perfectly good production of an extraordinarily popular musical that he's never really cared for. Although Godspell has been entertaining, delighting and emotionally moving audiences for over thirty five years, I was bored when I was a sixteen year old kid watching it on Broadway (although I did appreciate the opportunity to go onstage at intermission and get a free cup of wine, even though I was two years under the drinking age) and it bores me today.

I'm telling you this right from the start because if I seem less than enthused about The Paper Mill's otherwise very enjoyable production, it has nothing to do with the work of director Daniel Goldstein, his production team or his talented cast. I just don't care for the material.

John–Michael Tebelak conceived the idea of turning the Gospel According to St. Matthew into a musical, despite Jesus' teaching "Be careful that you do not make a show of your religion before men." I assume that Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the score, was off the hook because he was making a show of someone else's religion. (Yes, I know what the quote really means. Spare me your hate mail.) Moving uptown in 1976 after becoming an Off-Broadway hit, Godspell was one of Broadway's first rock musicals that didn't scare the hell out of parents. Unlike Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, it's a family-friendly, non-confrontational show with a score of hook-laden soft pop and folk. Its repetitive hit song, "Day By Day" -- the New Testament's answer to "It's A Small World, After All" -- is a popular choice among those singing around campfires toasting marshmallows.

The simple plot has Jesus and his disciples (all… um… nine of them) acting out parables in cheery sketch comedy manner between inspirational easy listening tunes. Though they bond as a community, there is an uneasiness between Jesus and Judas which escalates into the well-known conclusion of the story. This is where my main quibble with Godspell lies. The show appears to be written with the assumption that everyone in the audience knows what's going on. And while that may be true, the text never explains the story of Judas' betrayal. Viewers who enter the theatre bringing in strong spiritual convictions are very likely to be moved by the events of the second act, but they do nothing for me because the storytelling and character development barely exists.

Tebelak, who also directed the original production, depicted the group as an adorable gathering of flower children with a fashion sense heavily influenced by circus clowns, but the published script encourages directors, designers and actors to freely update, variate and interpret the material as they like. The only constants are the words spoken by Jesus which are mostly quotes from scripture, because really, who's going to have the nerve to re-write that? In this production the parables make references to The Simpsons, Bill Cosby, Jersey malls, Tina Turner and the next musical coming to The Paper Mill.

Goldstein sets the show in a theatre which is either empty or all prepared for a performance of Rent. Set designer David Korins fills the stage with towering scaffolding. The actors enter individually as everyday people trying to get out of the rain, finding dry clothes from a costume rack (there's a clever gag making fun of Jesus' apparel in the original production) loaded up with an eclectic mix from designer Miranda Hoffman, who also does some impressive work with masks and puppetry.

The cast is young and peppy and appealing, with Dan Kohler (Jesus), Joshua Henry (John the Baptist/Judas), Uzo Aduba, Sarah Bolt, Sara Chase, Robin de Jesus, Patrick Heusinger and Julie Reiber all supplying good-natured humor and belty (but not too belty) vocals. Anika Larsen stands out for her comic bits and expressive vocals in "Day By Day," as does Telly Leung for his lovely singing of "All Good Gifts."

Fans of audience participation will enjoy moments where actors go up and down the aisles to lead rhythmic clapping, involve unsuspecting patrons in a gag or, at the end of intermission, partake in some impromptu mingling. I was very grateful for my seat in the center of my row.

I realize that writing a negative review of Godspell is a little like panning a Catholic mass, so please show some forgiveness for my somewhat jaded attitude. If you love Godspell, or even mildly like it, you should have a great time at this lively production performed by a very talented cast. And if you've never seen Godspell…who are you going to listen to? Me or Jesus Christ? I think that's a no-brainer.

Photos by Gerry Goodstein: Top:(on knees, l-r) Joshua Henry, Sarah Bolt and Uzo Aduba (other, l-r), Anika Larsen, Robin de Jesus, Dan Kohler, Julie Reiber, Sara Chase, Patrick Heusinger and Telly Leung

Bottom: Patrick Heusinger and Joshua Henry

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From This Author Michael Dale