Mary Faber, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and
Juliana Ashley Hansen in Saved
(© Joan Marcus)
Mary Faber, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and
Juliana Ashley Hansen in Saved
(© Joan Marcus)
Perhaps keenly aware of the old adage that "satire is what closes on Saturday night," Michael Friedman, Rinne Groff, and John Dempsey, the creators of the new musical Saved, now at Playwrights Horizons, have transformed the deeply sardonic 2004 film about life in a Christian high school into a surprisingly earnest tuner about adolescent (and occasionally adult) angst and the struggle to maintain faith. The often-engaging, rarely-offensive result is likely to disappoint fans of the movie -- or anyone expecting a broad comedy -- yet will probably appeal to a wider spectrum of theatergoers.

Indeed, despite its current Off-Broadway venue and limited run, everything about Saved screams potential Broadway transfer, from the top-tier behind-the-scenes talent -- including director Gary Griffin, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, and award-winning designers Scott Pask, Jess Goldstein, and Donald Holder -- to the perfectly chosen 13-member cast, led by the invaluable Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Groff and Dempsey's book -- the pair also share lyricist credit with composer Friedman -- sticks reasonably close to the film's screenplay, although it takes the entire (and somewhat unfocused) first act to reach the work's pivotal plot point : The virtuous and virginal Mary (Keenan-Bolger) has become pregnant after her one-and-only sexual encounter with sensitive boyfriend Dean (the charismatic, strong-voiced Aaron Tveit) -- a last-ditch and sadly misguided attempt to convince Dean he isn't gay. Oh yes, by the way, Jesus (Daniel Zaitchik, convincing in a trio of roles) made her do it!

Her faith shattered by this turn of events -- which includes Dean being exiled to "Mercy House" to cure him of his sin -- the stronger second act has Mary upending her previously perfectly ordered life. She turns her back on goody-goody (if quasi-venal) best friend Hilary Faye (the superb Mary Faber), shies away from potential love interest Patrick (Van Hughes), and befriends tough-talking Jewish bad girl Cassandra (the scene-stealing Morgan Weed), who has taken up with Hilary Faye's wisecracking, physically disabled brother Roland (the wonderful Curtis Holbrook, who thankfully gets out of his wheelchair to show off his extraordinary dancing skills in the first-rate fantasy sequence "Heaven").

In a possible attempt to expand the show's demographic, the musical also gives a touch of added weight to the troubled romance between Mary's frazzled single mother (the always amazing Julia Murney, who scores with the show's best song "How To" as well as the comic "Orlando") and the school's stern principal -- and Patrick's father -- Pastor Skip (the ever-fine John Dossett), whose wife has essentially abandoned him for missionary work in Africa.

While Friedman's pop-and-theater-inflected music is consistently melodic, the 17-song score is a bit excessive, not to mention a decidedly hit-and-miss affair, with too many repetitive lyrics. Indeed, excising a few of the less-memorable songs -- and thereby shortening the production's overlong 2 hour-and-20 minute running time -- might be a wise move before the next production.

If there is one, let's hope it's soon; Keenan-Bolger (like much of the cast) already looks far too mature to play a teenager. But this heartrending actress remains as committed a performer as one could hope for, both in dialogue and song. (Her crowning moment is the fine-second act ballad "Changing.") In the end, Saved needs her and the rest of these performers much more than Mary needs religious salvation.