A.D. Players has pulled off quite a little miracle of its own. The company has succeeded in making Godspell, Stephen Schwartz and John Michael Teblak's flower child story of Jesus' ministry and last days, immensely watchable. It cannot, however, transform this show into a good musical, but it tries, God knows it tries.
Insufferably cute and slathered in whimsy, fit for Sunday school toddlers, Godspell is intrinsically preachy as it slavishly follows Christ's teachings, mostly the parables, as the cast acts out the stories and morals with down-home folksiness and let's-put-on-a-show attitude. They play charades and Pictionary with the audience; they hug and high-five, drop pop cultural references. It's like being trapped in a Haight-Ashbury sacred kindergarten commune, only these acolytes aren't smoking dope. They are scrubbed, still wet behind the ears and probably not dealt a full deck. They play sheep and goats in one scene; the Prodigal Son and his envious brother and doting, forgiving father in another; Mary Magdelene as Broadway vamp; jealous Pharisees and money lenders; the woman taken in adultery; wicked judges; the good seed and the fallow seed; swooning apostles (though no one is given a name, not even Judas); and, later, the accusing mob at his trial. Charismatic Jesus leads this merry band with fiery gospel sermons and impeccable goodness, showing them their way to eternal salvation.
All set to Schwartz's semi-rock pastiche score, known for the hymn-like “Day by Day,” the show-stopping “All for the Best” and the inspirational “Beautiful City.” (Need I remind you that Schwartz would later write Pippin and, yes, mega-hit Wicked.)
Nothing wrong with His message: Be good and kind, be truthful, don't judge lest ye be judged, show mercy and forgiveness. We're all still trying to live up to these universal redeeming precepts.
What A.D. Players has done, though, is shoved this grade-B show into prime time. While I question the concept of placing the musical in a prison – just where is there any gender-neutral penitentiary and why are all these sweet people incarcerated? – the gorgeous George Theater stage is a multi-platformed, brick and barbed-wired space with watchtower and grated cistern for christening, and armed guards in the balcony. I must say, it doesn't make much sense, but Ryan McGettigan's scenic design is heavenly. The inmates, male and female, wear white shirts and pants, first getting a sponge christening, then doused in colored powder as if it's Happy Holi Day in New Delhi – a nod to the show's hippiedom-inspired history.
Although the scenic design is spectacular, it's what happens in and around it that can take your breath away. Director Justin Doran, a Houston treasure in front of and behind the footlights, sets a celestial pace, allowing the actors free rein to roam and perform with an almost improvisational wash. This is part of Godspell's original built-in faux charm. The phenomenal cast is a who's who of ace Houston musical performers, and I've never heard a better one. Andrew Carson, Joey Watkins, Mason Butler, Mark Ivy, Jeremy Gee, Chelsea Ryan McCurdy, Kristin Warren, Brooke Wilson, Teresa Zimmerman, and the rest, can belt, croon, put over a soft-shoe and hoof like pros. Above all their prodigious talents, they believe with all their soul in what they're doing. And that's not so easy to do with your heart so directly on your sleeve.
The other major plus to this version's success is the choreography by Krissy Richmond, another Houston treasure and Broadway veteran. She overlays the production with glorious sweeping movement and glittery routines that set your heart pounding, they're that good! Everybody dances in this musical, whether pounding a table, frugging in a backup group, shimmying in a kick line or reviving Bojangles or the het-up soul of Jack Cole. They are dance-mad at A.D. Players.
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Carson's husky croon is the perfect fit for his sturdy Jesus; Ivy's impish personality and stellar tenor shine in “All Good Gifts;” McCurdy can do anything, especially “Learn Your Lesson Well”; Butler's nerd receives a fine solo spot in the country-fried “We Beseech Thee”; Wilson is a gem at comedy and belts a homer with “O Bless My Soul”; Gee, all tatted-up, raises the temperature with the Act I closer “Light of the World”; Teresa Zimmerman is pure, simple and radiant in “Day by Day”; tyro Noah Alderfer raps impressively in “Save the People”; Warren sizzles in “Turn Back O Man”; and Watkins broods darkly then turns the tables and does a nimble soft-shoe patter in “All the Best.”
The razzle-dazzle of A.D. Players' production is epic. An exemplary cast, an imaginative director, a pro choreographer, a steamy band (although the quartet goes unnamed in the program, Stephen W. Jones is the conductor), but a so-so show. I wish all five were there. Sometimes prayers go answered.
Godspell continues through August 20 at A.D. Players, 5420 Westheimer. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $19-$68.