Godspell | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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at the Ivanhoe Theater

I went to see the original production of Godspell shortly after it opened off-Broadway in 1971, and I sat next to a guy who spoke some foreign language -- Hungarian maybe, or some Slavic dialect. He sat chatting with his girlfriend, who spoke back to him in English, and I didn't pay any more attention to them until the show started. During the first song, a rocking Gregorian chant titled "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," this guy suddenly chimed in with a piercing falsetto harmony that was gorgeous. How clever, I thought, they've got a singer in the audience to create the communal feeling of a church service. And the singer doesn't even have to speak English -- how utterly ecumenical! Then an usher appeared out of nowhere, leaned across me, and snarled in the guy's face, "Listen buddy, if you don't knock it off we're gonna hafta throw you outta here." The singer wasn't in the show at all. He was just so moved by the music he wanted to participate in it.

There's no doubt about it -- the music is moving. The tunes are rousing and melodic, and the lyrics are surprisingly clever, considering they rely so heavily on the New Testament. ("You are the salt of the earth / But if that salt has lost its flavor / It ain't got much in its favor . . . ")

The music is what made Godspell a hit the first time around, and it's the music that makes the show a fitting choice for revival, even though times have changed drastically since rock musicals were a la mode.

But the stuff between the songs has become insufferable. Sure, Christ's teachings are timeless, but Godspell presents them with the wide-eyed, gee-whiz enthusiasm of the early 1970s, and that style is unbearably sweet and precious today. The revival at the Ivanhoe Theater makes no attempt to change the tone of the patter, or innovate in any other way, so the show is an anachronism, every bit as out-of-date and embarrassing as those hip-hugging bell-bottoms you've got buried somewhere in a drawer.

In its day, Godspell was rather provocative. The idea was to present Jesus as an ordinary guy, not unlike all those sincere, idealistic young people back then who were wearing beads and peace symbols -- and hip-hugging bell-bottoms. The show was conceived by the late John-Michael Tebelak, who directed the original production when he was just 22. He claimed he got the idea after leaving an Easter Sunday service and getting searched for drugs by a policeman hostile to young men with long hair. Tebelak decided to present Jesus as a hippie in whiteface, wearing a Superman shirt, gaudy pants, and suspenders. (In the Ivanhoe production, Spider-man has replaced Superman as the symbol of superhuman strength, and the face makeup is gone.) Christ's followers were dressed like hippies too, with painted faces. (The Ivanhoe crew leans toward the college party look -- leotards, Hawaiian shirts, and sneakers.)

Between songs, Christ preaches, while his followers act out the meaning of his words in cute little skits. The story of the prodigal son, for example, becomes an episode of Leave It to Beaver, and the Crucifixion consists of tying Christ to a chain-link fence. The cast members seem to be guided by only one stage direction -- act rambunctious. It's no wonder Godspell has become a staple in the high school musical repertoire -- the skits require no talent, permit an unlimited amount of overacting, and appeal to an adolescent sense of humor.

Times change. What seemed shockingly irreverent in 1971 seems merely silly today. Without a radical reworking of the script, Godspell is just a curiosity left over from some forgotten era. And the Ivanhoe production, directed by Robert Gutenburg, is not a radical reworking. He has thrown in some contemporary references to Joan Rivers, Howard Cosell, Greylord, and Domino's Pizza, but the style remains faithful to the original. And with his performance, Drew Beck seems to be trying to return some of the solemnity and stuffiness to the Christ figure, thereby muting the show's boldness.

So all this show has to recommend it are the songs, which were written in six weeks by Stephen Schwartz, who also wrote scores for Pippin, the musical version of Studs Terkel's Working, and Rags, which just opened at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit.

Unfortunately, there are no outstanding voices in this cast. Richard Walker does a commendable job with "Prepare Ye," Jennifer Chada displays solid vocal control during "By My Side," and Edward Wilson throws himself into "We Beseech Thee."

But overall, no one has the spark needed to ignite these songs. The spirit may be willing, but the flash is weak, and I doubt that this production will cause anyone in the audience to burst into song.

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