Some might leave the Marriott Theatre revival of “Godspell” feeling they had just experienced the next best thing to a trip to Lourdes. Others (and I am among them) might feel as if they’d been sent to Sunday school in an upscale suburb to watch a group of exceptionally talented college kids stage a Biblical pageant.
Musical theater is no stranger to expressions of religious experience, whether in the form of the cheesy (“Jesus Christ Superstar”), the brashly irreverent (“The Book of Mormon”), the aspirational (“The Sound of Music”) or the philosophical (“Fiddler on the Roof”).
“Godspell,” the ever-popular show with a score by Stephen Schwartz (of “Wicked” and “Pippin” fame) and book by John-Michael Tebelak (based largely on the Gospel of Matthew, with parables lifted from the Gospel of Luke), arrived on Broadway in 1971. And it feels like a vintage outgrowth of Vatican II, when efforts to make the Catholic Church more modern, accessible and appealing to young people often resulted in guitar-filled holy masses.
The Marriott production, expertly directed and choreographed by Matt Raftery and featuring a top-notch cast, is earnest, heartfelt and playfully celebratory. And it has been easily “updated” with mobile phones and a sprinkling of contemporary references (the one about Obamacare got the biggest laugh). Its many musical “lessons” are engagingly staged, with the use of everything from golden hula hoops, ribbon sticks and blue, tie-dyed scarves suggesting baptismal waters, to silks for the crucifixion scene. And the show certainly serves as a reminder of how greed, hypocrisy, selfishness and cruelty destroy the fabric of life, and how religion can be hijacked for sinister purposes.
All that said, I can’t say “Godspell,” with a score that mixes elements of gospel and rock with the echo of traditional hymns — and with actors who easily combine a winking charm with tearful fervency — fully shook my soul. The show can’t escape the label of “school pageant” material as opposed to full-fledged Broadway musical.
As Jesus, Brian Bohr, with his blond hair, white jeans and aqua polo shirt, looks like a prom queen’s date, but he teaches likes a prophet and brings passion to the Passion. In the dual roles of John and, most crucially, the betraying Judas, Devin DeSantis (who’d be a great Iago) demonstrates how movement can be as powerful as dialogue.
But each member of the tightly knit ensemble — who struggle with their consciences, desires and guilt — also grabs your attention. Supported by Ryan T. Nelson’s music direction, and a band of five led by Patti Garwood, the actors (Lillie Cummings, Elizabeth Lanza, Nate Lewellyn, Christine Mild, Eliza Palasz, Samantha Pauley, Zachary Piser and Tom Vendafreddo) bring their clarion voices and fresh, zestful personalities to everything they do as they clamber over carpentry tables and morph from saints and sinners, to sheep and goats, seductresses and peasants