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The Wicked Stage accidentally witnesses Godspell

June 5, 2012

It’s been exciting lately at the Wicked Stage; first, this blog was announced as a finalist for an AltWeekly Award for best blog, with the winner to be announced on June 8th. (And in the finest tradition of the Academy Awards, I’d like to mention what an honor it is just to be nominated. And what an irony it would be to win for three blog posts about non­-San Antonio productions.) In the meantime, I’ve been gallivanting across two continents, while soaking up sun and theater. I’ll have more about my time in Madrid—including a gander at the Comédie Française’s gallop through Gogol—but here’s some thoughts about three shows I caught in NYC on my way back to the Alamo City.

First, a necessary preamble. My flight from Madrid was scheduled to land in the mid-afternoon, so I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to take a chance on getting evening theater tickets. But after a heinous and mechanically-challenged bus ride, I finally got to Manhattan; and with sweat streaming down my (manly, heaving) torso, I burst into the Playwrights Horizons box office in time to grab tickets to the 7pm performance of Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. (Only by the by, it’s a scandal that this playwright has yet to be produced in San Antonio; but I digress.) And with tickets and luggage in hand, I collapsed at the hotel, ready to wake up after a quick nap.

Except, of course, that I forgot to set the alarm to ‘on’—meaning that I lurched awake at 7.20pm, already late for any rapturing, blistering, or burning. In a panic, I resorted to Plan B, since there was no way this theater critic was going to spend an evening in NYC without catching a show. And so at 7.30, I found myself standing in front of the TKTS booth, scoping out the shows with 8pm start times—but since it was a Tuesday, pickings were scarce, with only a handful of shows with a late curtain. Of those, there was only one show I hadn’t seen before.

And that, gentle Current reader, is how I came to be trapped at the recent, god-awful revival of Godspell. The good news is that the new lead, Corbin Bleu of High School Musical fame, is terrific. The bad news is that there’s no more good news, though there is, of course, plenty of Good News. Indeed, that’s the problem with the evening: original creator John-Michael Tebelak hit upon the fine idea of adapting the Gospel of St. Matthew for the stage, but pretty much botches the implementation, as he jettisons almost all traditional narrative and instead retells Christ’s parables in the breathless, gee-whiz fashion of a children’s church pageant. It’s like being locked in Romper Room; I actually found the evening sort of insulting. (I mean, if a production can’t tell the story of Jesus without resorting to trampolines, something is seriously wrong with its command of narrative arc.) Stephen Schwartz’s score is pleasant enough, but between director Daniel Goldstein’s go-for-broke direction and that terrible book, I found this one of the longest evenings I’ve ever spent on Broadway.

Fortunately, I was able to cleanse my palate the next day on the Obie Award-winning 4000 Miles. Did it deserve the Obie? Hmmmm. I would have given that honor either to the lovely Sons of the Prophet or the provocative Cock, but it’s a well-crafted play, and a model of its type–that type being the unpretentious character study. Now, you’re either into character studies or you’re not; I prefer rather more plot, rather less insight into the sundry mysteries of the human soul. But playwright Amy Herzog’s ear is excellent: the story involves the return of twenty-something Leo to his grandmother’s apartment after a cross-country bike ride through the heartland and the heart. What’s remarkable about Herzog’s play is how easily and naturally life’s little tragedies are assimilated into a new normalcy: childlessness, resentment, loneliness, even death. It’s an elegiac play with crack casting—Mary Louise Wilson is clearly one of the finest actresses working today, and Lincoln Center’s handsome production has already extended into July. This work would seem to be a natural choice for a San Antonio production in the future (such as at the Vexler or in the Cellar).

A couple years ago I wrote an impassioned review of the Vexler’s Extremities; I expressed my bafflement that the Vex found that particular play worthy of revival when there were clearly superior options for the season’s opening slot. Last week, I felt the same way about the Roundabout’s production of Simon Gray’s The Common Pursuit, a 1984 piece that originally premiered in America with Nathan Lane and Dylan Baker. Now, as a new play, I suppose The Common Pursuit is okay: it’s about the disappointments encountered by six Cambridge chums as they slip from bright-eyed youth to bitter middle age. And there’s plenty of well-executed quipping and lots of literary name-dropping and the whole thing is very polished and urbane and British.

But it’s also entirely pointless. As a revival, I mean. As a slice of the 80’s, sure, it’s fine, but the attractions of the play as a play are pretty modest. Moisés Kaufman, of the Tectonic Theater Project, does the best he can, but naturalism really isn’t his forté, and the evening feels long, particularly the weaker second half. I’d like to sing the praises of Derek McLane’s nifty set, however, which accomplishes a petite coup de théâtre in the evening’s final moments. But, alas, that’s too little, too late for this extremely common Common Pursuit.

-Thomas “Award-Nominated” Jenkins, Current Theater Critic

 

 

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  • Bob

    Glad that you called Common Pursuit “pointless”. Have not seen this version, but saw original American production and found the play workable at best.
    It is a sad comment when a theater like Roundabout feels a need to revive it at this poing.

  • Kat

    I have a feeling that the only reason you don’t like Godspell is because you are not a Christian. I’m not either but when I saw it I didn’t care what religion the show was about. It was an overall amazing show and I don’t understand why you have to be an asshole about it. Godspell made me want to perform more than any other broadway show I’d ever seen. So refresh your brain and think about how happy everyone on that stage looked.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for reading. One of my formative experiences as a theater-lover was Stephen Daldry’s amazing direction of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which I caught as a student, and which proved to me the value of taking a little-known play and re-thinking absolutely every aspect of production: design, acting, and interpretation. Indeed, there’s little I enjoy more than seeing an “old” play in a fresh or intriguing production. That said, I don’t believe that the current production of The Common Pursuit proved the value of its revival; while I suspect that Gray’s Butley will continue to be a mainstay of regional theaters—I caught the West End production last year—I
    doubt that The Common Pursuit will ever join it as a frequently performed work. From the viewpoint of 2012, it looks ever more like a period piece.