'Godspell," a favorite of community theaters and church groups since the beginning of time -- more accurately, since 1971 Off-Broadway -- has not been on Broadway in 34 years. How one greets this revival clearly depends on one's affection for Stephen Schwartz's first musical, an earnest, up-with-people, soft-pop pastiche based on "The Gospel According to St. Matthew."
For the "Godspell"-resistant among us, however, not to mention believers in the separation of Church and Broadway, director Daniel Goldstein's relentlessly hardworking, coyly updated and -- with one exception -- exceedingly well-sung production does little to help us see the light.
And that exception, alas, is star Hunter Parrish as Jesus. Parrish, so deft as the older son Silas in "Weeds" and in a replacement cast of "Spring Awakening," certainly has the golden-boy looks for the part. But he sounds tentative and, perhaps worse, seems unable to project lighthearted charm. He does get more comfortable when things grow dark after the Last Supper. Until he is strung up on the cross -- yes, really -- he wears a sickly grin and acts out each lyric as if trained by hula dancers.
The production is staged in the round, with all the requisite careening down the aisles. A sunken piano is onstage, and a handful of musicians are embedded in the audience. Schwartz's songs -- gospel, vaudeville, blues, often with beautiful harmonies -- have always been the show's strength. Unfortunately, the episodic text is a shapeless series of parables, updated now with feeble references to Lindsay Lohan, Donald Trump and Facebook.
The nine performers are talented young people who get less cloying in the second act, when they stop trying so hard. They begin in business clothes, talking into cellphones, but soon change into ragtag thrift shop/fairy-tale style. They dance the Macarena, shoot confetti at us from pop guns and, in one of the better numbers, jump on trampolines revealed under trap doors.
Scrupulous journalism requires me to report that Friday's audience leaped to its collective feet, roared with approval and many even went onstage for thimbles of wine at intermission. At the risk of appearing to kick a puppy, I admit I was not among them.
WHERE Circle in the Square Theatre, 50th Street west of Broadway
INFO $125-$155; 212-239- 6200; godspell.com
BOTTOM LINE Hardworking update, well sung and tiresome