On a hazy, humid, 90-degree day, there's nothing more refreshing than seeing a show in the Theater at Saint Peter's--mainly because it's the coolest house this side of Alaska. But what's on stage matters, too. And when the fare is as hot as Godspell, you're doubly thankful for that arctic air conditioning.
This production recently had a successful Off-Off Broadway run, and has now transferred to St. Peter's. (What better place to view a musical based on the Gospel according to Matthew?) Armed with the blessing of creator Stephen Schwartz, not to mention a host of rewrites--a heavily revised "Tower of Babel" prologue, new lyrics for "God Save the People" and other songs--this presentation of NET Theatrical Productions couldn't be more timely, affecting, or just plain fun.
A lot has changed in the three decades since Godspell first played the Cherry Lane Theatre in 1971, and director Shawn Rozsa and his cast are in step with the times. Joining Socrates and others in the prologue is Nelson Mandela. Instead of clown-style greasepaint, the actors sport body glitter and shimmery lip gloss. Gone is Jesus' Superman shirt; he now wears a 3/4-length tee with a sun logo that would more likely be tattooed on the back of some West Village teen than displayed on the chest of the Son of God. (Savvy shoppers take note: it's Polo Sport.) The "Tower of Babel" sequence descends into WWF-inspired chaos. In one bit, Abraham gets a Spanish interpreter. Charlie's Angels, Johnnie Cochran, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, The Lion King, The Godfather, Bud commercials ("Whasssup!"), and pashmina shawls all have their due in the improv-style sketches. My personal favorite moment was a sampling of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady"--you can't get much trendier than a nod to that controversial rapper.
Ovi Vargas' choreography is terrifically MTV-savvy. And even the songs have been retooled and re-arranged. "Learn Your Lessons Well" gets a riot grrl update, while "Light of the World" sounds like something out of (can you dig it?) Shaft. (Who's the man? Actor Tim Cain.)
Some things remain the same: e.g., the baptism by dime-store sponge and metal bucket, and the metal fence anchoring the set. The clothing is still decidedly '70s--but now you can buy it off the rack at H&M and Patricia Field. And the show is still a showcase for a talented cast. Shoshana Bean--a Gloria Estefan-like young woman with a Christina Aguilera-like voice--knocks herself out riffing on "Bless the Lord." In the show's quietest, simplest moment, Eliseo Roman sings a lovely "All Good Gifts." Chad Kimball is adorable throughout, even when someone's bouncing a tambourine off his butt. Gap ad alum Barrett Foa is a wonderfully All-American Jesus and a perfect center for this terrific production.
The intimate theater was not full the night I saw Godspell, which is indeed a shame. Where are all the children? The teenagers who would get all the jokes? The catechism classes? The school groups who would surely fall in love with theater after seeing something this lively, interactive, and enjoyable? Are they all across town at that overblown, overmiked production of Jesus Christ Superstar?
Spread the word about this Godspell. Tell anyone who appreciates theater to get a ticket--and don't forget about the air conditioning. Why not bring your pashmina?