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‘Godspell’ review: An uplifting revival drawing on timeless themes

Hans Paul Hendrickson stars as a Superman T-shirt-clad

Hans Paul Hendrickson stars as a Superman T-shirt-clad Jesus in "Godspell" at Theatre Three, Port Jefferson, through March 26. Credit: Theatre Three Productions

WHAT “Godspell”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through March 26, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson

TICKETS $17-$30, $15 ages 5-12 (younger children not admitted); 631-928-9100, theatrethree.com

Shelf life diminishes musicals that live exclusively in time long past. Those from the same period as “Godspell” — “Hair,” for instance — may seem naive in today’s terrorist-hostage world. Yet each shares peace-love aspirations.

But “Godspell,” now receiving an uplifting Theatre Three revival in this Lent/Easter season, draws on timeless themes broadly shared by the world’s major religions. The title refers to its source — “godspell,” a derivation of “good story” or “glad tidings” — evoking New Testament gospels (Matthew and Luke) that inspired the book by John-Michael Tebelak and score by Stephen Schwartz.

The good news here is that Theatre Three director Jeffrey Sanzel rejects temptations to make “Godspell” as Tweet-worthy as the 2011-12 Broadway revival, which name-dropped everyone from Donald Trump to Kim Kardashian in a vain grab for social-media immediacy. In program notes, Sanzel mentions his 40-year history with “Godspell” as a secular Jew, including recent youth versions starring female Jesuses.

In this production, Hans Paul Hendrickson presents a blond Jesus garbed throughout in a Superman T-shirt, bringing to mind a rival New Testament musical of that time, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“Godspell” debuted as Tebelak’s Carnegie Mellon master’s-thesis project in 1970. Its folk-rock idiom and hippie-go-lucky vibe reflect those origins. A year later, “Godspell” became an Off-Broadway smash and, after a touring interregnum, opened on Broadway in 1976. Amanda Geraci introduces its signature song, “Day by Day,” with spiritual conviction. (Except for Jesus, John the Baptist and Judas — the latter two played with subtle foreboding by Patrick O’Brien — all the players answer to their own first names.) Jenna Kavalier as an accused adulteress about to be stoned — to death — takes the emotional lead in “By My Side,” the only song from the original college production to survive (Peggy Gordon/Jay Hamburger) in Schwartz’s smartly rewritten score.

Jessica Contino rouses the ensemble in “We Beseech Thee,” the number most resembling an evangelical foot-stomper. Steve McCoy on keyboards conducts the onstage band with fervor while Randall Parsons’ brightly hued costumes, enhanced by Robert Henderson Jr.’s lighting, avoid tie-dyed/bell bottom clichés.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for Hendrickson’s engagingly human Jesus. Sanzel, as Theatre Three’s executive director as well, deftly handles religious criticism over the years that Jesus isn’t resurrected in “Godspell,” unless you count the final bow: At Theatre Three, “Godspell” closes the night before Easter.

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