Heading off to Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell at the Circle in the Square Theater last weekend, I had absolutely no preconceived notions. My knowledge of the show was based off a friends comment that it was about New Testament stories. Though I had imagined that “Godspell” was probably some ironic, non-religious Broadway cleverness, I took this in my stride, anticipating standard Broadway lights and songs.
From its very first moment, however, the show was anything but “standard.” The intimate in-the-round theater was entirely transformed into a performance space, with water splashing across the stage and music blaring from musicians scattered throughout the audience. As I was struggling to get my bearings (realizing that this was not Wicked) a man stepped on stage. Hailed as “Jesus,” the man was neither long-haired nor robe wearing, but was utterly enchanting, with a beaming smile and a beautiful voice (played by the fairly incredible Hunter Parrish of Weeds fame). It became apparent that he was “the lord” and the other cast members his disciples.
At this point, I was beginning to cringe. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about religion, but the dedication with which the cast was proceeding from parable to parable was making me feel uneasily like I was being preached to. This was not my intention entering the theater. But slowly, as the show continued (through a Pictionary exemplification of one parable and a Charades round of another) I began to relax. It became clear that the show was not so much promoting or mocking these biblical stories, but simply telling them, with genuine relish. The music was excellent, and the various performances (including the phenomenal Wallace Smith, the original Broadway Simba, and Telly Leung, of “Glee”) were absolutely fantastic. The show was seamless, interactive, emotional, and genuinely funny. They even included a handful of Superbowl comments.
But what won me over most of all was the real joy with which the actors, without exception, engaged with their show. Their smiles were radiant and they committed absolutely to every moment of song, dance, and performance (some of which was very innovative, using as props everything from newspapers to fake flowers). Despite my continued discomfort with the Biblical stories (the show assumed that the meaning of each parable was clear and simple, which I don’t necessarily take to be the case) the show carried itself joyfully through to the end. Amazingly, it did something that I was definitely not expecting: it broke the mold of a Broadway Musical. This is the kind of show for anyone who is interested in something wildly different, and wants to be very, very thoroughly entertained.