NEW YORK (AP) — Here's one revelation from the energetic new revival of "Godspell" on Broadway: Jesus is easily the least interesting character.
That might seem strange coming from a musical that is based on the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew, but this Christ, played by Hunter Parrish ("Spring Awakening"), is, in a word, milquetoast.
He's earnest and pretty and wide-eyed, but lacks an ounce of charisma, a dangerous failing for anyone attempting to play the Savior. Fittingly, he passes on wearing the traditional Superman T-shirt in favor of a baseball jersey. (The number on the back? No. 1, of course.)
Thankfully, the rest of the 10-person cast — scary-talented and many in their Broadway debuts — distract any shortage of magnetism, making this hippy-dippy show funny, infectious and reverent. Blessed indeed are the followers.
Broadway seems to be getting religion of late — "The Book of Mormon," ''Sister Act" and the upcoming "Jesus Christ Superstar" — and this first-ever Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz's landmark rock musical that opened Monday at the Circle in the Square Theatre fits perfectly.
Directed by Daniel Goldstein — who has been doodling with a 21st-century update of the 1970-era show since a Paper Mill Playhouse production in 2006 — is aided this time by choreographer Christopher Gattelli and both take full advantage of the theater's in-the-round gift.
The cast shoot confetti guns, pull up some audience members to share in the fun, bounce on trampolines, splash about in water, make Lindsay Lohan and Steve Jobs jokes, become human beat boxes and offer gorgeous versions of the songs "Day by Day," ''Beautiful City" and "All Good Gifts."
Multiple parts, quick sketches, jumping into the aisles, the use of props such as ladders, newspapers and cell phones — not to mention the need to clean the stage afterward — and the fact that the orchestra's members are scattered across the theater — would have doomed most creative teams. This one purrs. Have they had divine intervention?
The cast members have varied experiences. Some are Broadway veterans such as Wallace Smith, who powerfully portrays Judas/John and whose credits include "The Lion King"; a lively Lindsay Mendez, who was in "Grease"; and Uzo Aduba ("Coram Boy") who has a super voice and, perhaps most stunningly, can do a funny Donald Trump impersonation.
Some have been on TV, such as "Glee" actor Telly Leung who proves so multitalented that it's clear he is being wasted in the background of that show, Hunter Parrish ("Weeds") and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle from "Hannah Montana," who is tiny and beautiful and yet seems game for anything, and delivers a stirring "Day by Day."
Others are making their big stage step and clearly embracing it. Celisse Henderson is fluent in three instruments and has a rich voice, while George Salazar is clearly having fun because he's simply hysterical. One performer, Julie Mattison, shouldn't even be up there: She's an understudy for an injured actress, but belts out a nice "Turn Back, O Man" and jokes about how the audience will be surprised to see her in their Playbill inserts.
"For the first time, I'm feeling 'Wicked,'" Mattison said during one performance, which, of course, is the name of Schwartz's other massive hit musical which, it turns out, is playing just next door.
The musical is filled with similar zingers as the cast yanks the show — the original book is by John-Michael Tebelak — into the modern age using their improvisation skills and clever updates. At one performance, the cast joked about Oprah Winfrey, "South Park," Bill Cosby, "Charlie's Angels," Moammar Gadhafi, Charlie Sheen, Occupy Wall Street, the so-called "birthers," L. Ron Hubbard, Facebook, the stimulus package, "Star Wars," Katharine Hepburn and "The Macarena." Jesus turns water in a Poland Spring bottle into wine and does a neat trick of walking on water.
"Godspell," which has long been a standard show put on in colleges and high schools, captures the best of the old and embraces the new: At intermission, some cast members stay on stage for the traditional boogie with the audience — yes, free wine is handed out — and yet this new version has the parable about Tribute to Caesar illustrated by Jesus putting a coin in a tip jar. Costumes by Miranda Hoffman remain true to that dynamic, with the use of multicolored pants and suspenders as a nod to the hippy past, and prom dresses, sneakers, a bowling shirt and leopard prints a sign of the new.
It all ends badly, of course — for Jesus, not the show. The second act is a bummer, though Jesus' death is sensitively handled. But as his followers carry his body away — their faces glisten with sweat and they are visibly moved — it's clear that "Godspell" has anointed a new group of Broadway stars and we are the richer for it.
- Hunter Parrish