After the time-travel revival last year of "Hair" brought us back to the all-too-brief Summer of Love, the new revival of "Godspell" brings us up three or four years past the ’60s nostalgia sweepstakes, to the age of the Jesus freaks in the very early years of the ’70s -- fittingly, the "Me Decade."
As a direct outgrowth of the hippie movement, which had burned out on bad acid and worse karma (Charles Manson, Altamont), the Jesus freaks burned brightly for years. At first looked at with alarm, the mainstream Protestant denominations, Evangelicals and even the American Catholic Church quickly realized that this intense spiritual, ecstatic approach to salvation might help revive their own dwindling congregations.
The Jesus freaks de-emphasized all the passages about eternal damnation and sin. This Jesus didn’t come with fire and sword to separate families. No, this was a laughing Jesus, whose message was one of love, love, love. Even if the movement itself burned out, its religious intensity is still very much with us -- in the duality of the Evangelicals who make up the base of the Tea Party; and in the social justice types who comprise all those Occupy Wall Streeters.
This "Godspell," as directed by Daniel Goldstein, comes firmly down the middle. Although this wacky bunch of kids -- oops, I mean disciples -- look like they raided every thrift store on Bedford Avenue, they are well behaved and easily fall into line. (The too-studied hipness of the costumes is the production’s weakest aspect, although I rejoiced that they didn’t don clown make-up, as in the execrable film adaptation.)
It’s easy to see why they would come under the sway of this Jesus. As played by Hunter Parrish, the messiah is a handsome (OK, gorgeous), athletic bundle of controlled energy and charisma to spare. This is Jesus as prep-school jock, president of the senior class.
He exhorts and moves the cast around like a crew leader at Choate or a lacrosse captain at Phillips-Andover. Don’t get me wrong: Parrish can dance, has a nicely modulated tenor voice, and, in the final scenes of the Passion, makes himself truly pitiable. But having Jesus by far the best-looking member of the cast, a blond who looks as though he just stepped out of an A&F ad, comes off as disconcerting. Jesus as a Ralph Lauren model is a little too close to those Aryan wall-calendar renditions that were the bane of my Bible belt youth.
Some critics have suggested that the more polished, more "Broadway" John the Baptist/Judas, Wallace Smith, would have been a better and (being black) even edgier choice. It’s probably unfair to castigate Parrish for being so good looking, but, as someone next to me remarked after the show, "Who knew Jesus was Scandinavian?"
Oh well. The rest of the cast is so motley; I was imagining the casting sheet that went out to agents: Asian man who can play piano? Check. (Telly Leung, and he’s absolutely terrific). Former Disney child star? Check. (Anna Maria Perez De Tagle, and ditto). Fat, sassy black woman, goofy overweight white guy, lanky noodly guy, peppy white chick ... so the list goes on.
This in itself isn’t a bad thing. Let’s face it: "Godspell," which everyone knows from endless high school, summer camp and church productions, lends itself to this "hey, kids, let’s put on a show" Mickey-and-Judy stuff.