Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

To Know Him is to Love Him

December 14, 2011

The cast of Godspell Photo: Jeremy Daniel 2011
Did I mention that I saw the current revival of Stephen Schwartz’ Godspell when I was in New York recently? It apparently had slipped my mind until someone asked me about it recently and truth be told, I did decide I was going to try and catch up with all the big late 20th-century Jesus musicals this month since I’ll be seeing Jesus Christ Superstar this weekend in La Jolla. Godspell, of course, is a different beast from Weber and Rice’s extravaganza. Schwartz took a much more obtuse, non-narrative approach to the same material with a show that even today functions more as a love-in than a conventional story-driven drama. And while there’s no real proselytizing in the show, the current revival comes at you with such an overabundance of good will and conviction that it has an air of desperation about it. The show is filled with New Testament parables from the Good Samaritan to Lazarus dutifully told by a rag-tag band of young theater performers who look like they wear only clothes they bought on Etsy. It’s all about making the material real to a contemporary audience, though, so the stories are peppered with jokes and allusions to just about everything you can think of to the recent Occupy protests to Republican presidential hopefuls. At times one wishes that the feeling wasn’t quite so up to the minute, but the jokes do tend to be reasonable ones even if the overall effect can be overwhelming. Just when you’re about to catch your breath, the cast members start passing around the hand-held confetti cannons.

That’s not to say there aren’t some really enjoyable performances here. The Jesus part goes to Hunter Parrish who manages to undercut his sharp good looks enough to seem inviting as a would be religious figure. Uzo Aduba stands out among the players as well vocally as does Wallace Smith. I was also taken with Telly Leung who gets to exhibit more range and skills here to those who may be familiar with him from the recent Star Trek movie. But even these talents can get mired in all the activity going on in this show. One wonders whether further distractions are needed here, but apparently the show’s promoters think that it might be warranted. In an odd case of life imitating…well…theater if not art, just as the ensemble enters the stage at the top of the show all with their heads buried in their individual smart phones, Godspell will reportedly get its own “Tweeting” section devoted to people who wish to use their mobile devices during the performance at some point in the future. Regardless of whether or not this bogeyman frightens you, the real question will be whether any of these would-be users will actually be able to get a signal in the depths of the Circle in the Square Theater. And if so, will they be communicating about the show, or will it be about something else?


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