The best thing about Pittsburgh CLO’s Godspell, running through Sun. July 17 at the Benedum Center, is its music. Written by composer Stephen Schwartz (who also conceived Pippin, Wicked, and Children of Eden), the melodies are straightforward and enduring. Schwartz pulls from genres including gospel, pop, and folk rock with a nod to vaudeville. The entire cast gives excellent vocal performances, and many are even actor-musicians who periodically join the band on its upstage platform. It’s super catchy and fun.
Godspell is a two-act musical in which Jesus (Roderick Lawrence) and an ensemble of often-unnamed players act out parables from the New Testament that strive to be moving and funny, but strike me as inscrutable at best and incoherent at worst. For me, they fill time in between the songs.
Playwright John-Michael Tebelak envisioned Godspell as a retelling of the Gospel of Matthew for his 1970 Carnegie Mellon University master’s thesis. (In a cute nod to Tebelak and Schwartz's background as CMU grads, CLO’s production also features a number of current CMU students.)
If images of the original production are any indication, Tebelak’s original concept focused on a troupe of clowns following Jesus and helping him retell parables. Musical Theater International, which owns the rights to Godspell, says Tebelak was inspired by a theory advanced by prominent theologian Harvey Cox of “Christ as a clown.”
Today, many productions, like CLO’s, replace the clowns with children or child-like adults. Accordingly, Jon Rua’s choreography heavily features mime and movement based on kids’ games like hopscotch. Before I realized that the ensemble of CLO’s production exists on an evolutionary continuum with Tebelak’s clowns, I thought to myself, “Huh, Jesus’ followers don’t seem too bright. I wonder if I’d be offended if I were Christian.”
The weird thing about Godspell is its lack of context. From the very first number, “Tower of Babble,” which juxtaposes philosophers from throughout time and space, presented as people from today, singing their views on God, the musical completely vaults past any question or concern related to who these beautiful, brightly-clothed, bouncy performers are, or why they are all hanging out in this urban no man’s land. According to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, Britton Mauk’s set is supposed to be an abandoned playground in Pittsburgh, which I did not get. In retrospect, I can’t figure out why, given that a merry-go-round, albeit an industrial-looking one, is a centerpiece.
And then, with fanfare but no explanation, Jesus arrives.
In an attempt to make the 50-year-old musical feel fresh, CLO’s production has such robust “youth pastor energy,” that it sometimes trivializes its subject matter, often seeming to mock the suffering of parable characters and turning Jesus into a sexy sleight-of-hand artist.
Perhaps I would have gotten more out of Godspell’s retelling of the parables if I had been more familiar with them, but promotional copy often touts its accessibility to people who do not count themselves among Jesus’ devoted followers. Ideally, I shouldn’t have to be familiar with the source material to “get it,” but I do wonder if the reason Godspell sits so weird with me, as a cranky Jewish person, is cultural. In the show, Jesus says a moral, and the ensemble seems to immediately understand. There’s no arguing, no asking for clarification, no suggesting of alternative circumstances in which Jesus’ principle might not apply in order to suss out the nuances of the rule. It feels very unfamiliar to someone raised in a religious tradition that values the generative power of an argument.
The score and CLO’s performers are good enough, however, to mitigate most of my criticism of the musical. After all, I’m still singing the songs to myself two days later.
Godspell. Continues through Sun., July 17. 7th St. and Penn Ave., Downtown. $29.85. trustarts.org