I was in New York City this weekend primarily to see Merrily We Roll Along at Encores. It turns out that my friend Sarah, who lives in Philadelphia, was also coming in for Merrily, so we decided to take in another show together.
There’s nothing I was particularly dying to see, but I’ve been curious about the Broadway revival of Godspell at Circle in the Square. Godspell is one of those scores I can listen to on repeat - I own at least five different recordings of it. But I’ve only ever seen a mostly-female summer camp production and the film. I wanted to direct a production of it in college for my Hillel drama club — no, really, I had both a great concept for it and a good reason for doing it at Hillel — but the program director of Hillel convinced me that there are enough people telling the Jesus story out there, maybe the Jewish organization that puts on two plays a year could pick something else…. So we did Children of Eden instead. But I digress… So despite my somewhat lukewarm reaction to the cast recording for the current production, I suggested we try our luck at the lottery for $32 “pillow seats.”
Okay, when I say “we” I really mean “she” because I was at dinner with a bevy of theater bloggers & tweeters while the lottery was taking place - and I was thrilled to get the text message saying we’d won!
Many of the folks at dinner had already seen the show, and one in particular suggested we get their early since each of the four pillow sections is made up of seven cushion on the ground around the stage, and each section’s seating is first come, first served.
We arrived before the house opened. When I checked in on Foursquare, I saw there’s a “newbie special” - on your first checkin, you get a “special gift” from the “Godspell Girl” (a member of the production staff who works promotions in the lobby). So on our way through the lobby, we told Godspell Girl of our check-in and received complementary temporary tattoos of the show logo. Super cute.
We were the first to be seated in our section, between the ramp to the stage and the staircase when John makes his “Prepare Ye” entrance. The cushions were actually pretty comfortable, and we decided to sit right against the lip of the stage. (Much better seats for this show than they were when I was similarly situated for Swing! at the St. James many years ago.)
If it seems like I’m spending an inordinate amount of time describing the experience before writing so much as one word about the performance, that’s on purpose. This Godspell is an experience, and that experience elevates the material far above what I was prepared to see.
Let’s be honest: for someone who has no particular emotional attachment to the Jesus story or Christian parables, what happens between the songs isn’t particularly compelling. Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, which will be opening a couple of blocks away later this season, Godspell does not devote a lot of energy to actually telling the story of the life of Jesus. Its real thrust is about the forming of a community, and how a community might be able to move on once its leader is no longer with them.
Director Daniel Goldstein took this theme to heart, and much of the experience of the show rests on the cast’s ability not only to come together as their own community, but in knitting together a temporary community of those of us who’ve come to see the show. (Paging Sarah Ellis!) And they’re really smart about how they do this!
he show takes place all over the theater - even the band is split up and dispersed among us. Members of the audience as pulled onstage to participate in some of the parables. Members of the cast chat - mics off - with small sections of the audience throughout the show at appropriate moments. And in the moment that is perhaps most genius of all, after Hunter/Jesus announces intermission, the band keeps jamming, a big tray of teeny little cups of wine is brought onto the stage (resembling kiddush at every synagogue everywhere), and the audience is invited up on stage to have some wine and dance with the cast. At intermission! It wasn’t until after I had my “wine” and wandered out to the lobby that I realized I had been so thoroughly charmed by the production that I forgot that the wine violated my diet. :)
Of course, this all works beyond the level of gimmickry because the cast nails the tone of the show. Hunter Parrish, so beautiful that he’s hard to look at, manages to play Jesus in a way that comes across as both incredibly attractive without once feeling “sexy,” which would be inappropriate. But when he looks at you and smiles — and believe me, the best part of sitting in the front row is having him look right into your eyes and smile — it’s like you’re the only two people in the universe and nothing could possibly ever be better. It helps that he’s got a sweet singing voice supporting his glowing smile and earnest line delivery. But if I raised an eyebrow when his casting was first announced, I take it all back - to the point of wondering who could ever take his place. (Darren Criss?)
The rest of the cast all bring plenty to the table as well, and each gets his or her chance to shine. The last New York production of Godspell introduced many of us to the talents of Leslie Kritzer, Shoshana Bean, Chad Kimball, Capathia Jenkins, and Barrett Foa, among others, and it wouldn’t surprise me if ten years from now we’ll be talking about Lindsay Mendez, Uzo Adubia, Celisse Henderson, Telly Leung, and the rest of this cast in similar terms. We were there when…
If the show wasn’t entirely successful for me, it all goes back to the goofiness of the book, and its reliance on parables rather than the life of Jesus for the first three-quarters of the show. When the tone shifts in the second act to a more serious representation of the events of the Passion, it hasn’t quite earned our emotional involvement in the drama. I found myself more moved by Hunter saying goodbye to the rest of the cast before the crucifixion than anything that came after it. I don’t know, maybe religious Christians, or even ex-religious-Christians who have a more visceral attachment to the story might react differently, but the end of the show felt a little anticlimactic.
I tend to measure my satisfaction with a Broadway show by how successfully it pulled at my emotions. With Godspell, I never got misty-eyed in the way that I expected. But if I’m being fair, being moved to bounce and sway and clap along with the music and get up on stage to have shitty grape juice with the cast is another way of measuring emotional movement. I’m thrilled I saw this show and can heartily recommend it for anyone who’s willing to give themselves over to an immersive, participatory (if occasionally underwhelming) experience on Broadway.