Circle in the Square
The early 1970s saw a flowering of youth-oriented religious awakening. During that time, musical theatre experienced Jesus Christ Superstar and the more bubbly Godspell. Both have been recently reworked for Broadway, perhaps because of the parallels to the 1970s (tough economic times, uncertainty about foreign wars).
Godspell has been updated with references to iPads and Purple Rain. Indeed, the show opens with various philosophers from Socrates to Hegel wandering around in a self-contained babel of cellphone chatter. Soon the clutter is swept clear with the sound of the trumpet (the shofar) preparing the way of the Lord.
The energetic cast is a delight, keeping the pace bubbly throughout the two hour production. In the lead role as Jesus, Corbin Bleu shows a range only glimpsed in his prior High School Musical efforts for Disney. Telly Leung is stunning; he displays superb acting and singing chops. Understudy Julia Mattison made the most of her lead singing in ‘Turn Back O Man,’ the second act opener. She slipped in a few sly references to her understudy status, which were well received.
The big hit is ‘Day By Day,’ here delivered with aplomb by Anna Maria Perez de Tagle. The song had none of the cloying nostalgia I feared it would evoke, which is a testament to both its timeless message and strong melody. It was an open secret that Lindsay Mendez was leaving the cast the night I attended, and the warmth the cast exuded was not lost on the audience. Indeed, the audience embraced all the performers, sometimes literally (during the intermission, the audience was invited to join the cast on stage for some wine / communion).
Stephen Schwartz has said that he drew from Episcopal hymns and the Gospel of St. Matthew in assembling the music and new lyrics, creating a pastiche of styles. The resulting musical stew was ably performed by the band, which was situated in the round, befitting the setting of the Circle in the Square theatre. Despite the seeming limitations of the spare stage, clever use was made of trapdoors, variously revealing a baptismal tank, Cirque-like trampolines and an eerie final supper table.
Godspell was one of my first musical theatre memories; I saw the now-famous production in Toronto in the 1970s. The cast included a bunch of then-unknowns: Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Martin Short and Paul Shaffer as musical conductor. The soundtrack got frequent circulation on my turntable, in between Tommy, Deep Purple, the Beatles and CSNY.
Seeing the current version was initially daunting (the references to cellphones, Prince and Steve Jobs seemed trite at first), but then I realized that was a bias I needed to overcome. The reason the musical resonated for me originally and so many others was that it made contemporary a message that was centuries old. Indeed, that is exactly what the current version is doing on Broadway.