Jesus for the 10 and Under Set

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


The revival of Godspell
currently playing at Circle in the Square is the kind of show that becomes a
game in one upsmanship during intermission and post-theater train rides. Is it a
lengthy sketch satirizing vacation Bible school? The Muppet Babies Apostles? Whatever you and your theatergoing
friends come up with will be more entertaining than the actual, syrupy
earnestness that director Daniel Goldstein and choreographer Christopher
Gattelli have contributed.

Playing Jesus with the stretched grin and unblinking gaze of
a Christian about to snap under the pressure of being good, Hunter Parrish
leads a cast of try-hards through Goldstein and Gattelli’s relentless paces,
belting out those Stephen Schwartz songs (“Day by Day,” “All for the Best”)
with a fervor that begs for an audience clap-along. Parrish’s simple-minded
approach to Jesus makes one question why these men and women worship at his
feet (often literally). And the number of jokes involving exclaiming his name
are countless.

Outfitted in garish clown costumes, the cast of 10 mugs,
pleads and begs for laughs and approval. Some unlucky audience members are
pulled on stage for a game of Pictionary or aid in the teaching of a parable by
waving tacky, flame-covered floor pillows in the air. The rest of us must sit
silently, jaws agape, at the sight of so much unironic sincerity, flavored with
the musty spice of unhip topicality. (Yes, that is an impression of Donald
Trump, which Parrish’s Jesus thinks is the neatest thing since sliced loaves.)

The only performer on stage who remembers that this is a
Broadway musical and not a high school tour—toss in some condoms and stranger
danger, and you’d have a full-service lesson musical for the underage set—is
understudy Julia Mattison, who livens up the first act with a throwaway line
about just dying to dance before she sets things right for the duration of her
act two solo, “Turn Back, O Man.” Slinking around the stage with a comically
misplaced sexuality, Mattison jokes and ad libs between verses, referencing her
own surprise presence (“I slipped into your Playbill tonight!”) and working the
audience like a seasoned pro. Watching her is like watching Shirley MacLaine
fill in for Carol Haney—you don’t want it to end, and not just because the rest
of this show is bound to fall short of her five minutes alone.

Sure enough, the second act’s swerve from morality playlets
to crucifixion scene (complete with Jesus slowly twirling on the cross) feels
heavy-handed and somehow abrupt. By the time Parrish’s Jesus is carried
offstage and the cast must jack-knife his body to get him up the steep aisle,
you’ll be ready to lose your religion.

Godspell

Open run, Circle in the Square Theatre, West 50th Street
(betw. Broadway & 8th Ave.), www.godspell.com; $125.

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