The Gospel of Matthew needs to be made relevant for today's audiences?
One of the charms of the '70s musical "Godspell" is its simplicity, as well as the unabashed earnestness of the young cast required to make the show work. John-Michael Tebelak's musical retelling of the Gospel of Matthew, with lyrics adopted from the Episcopal Hymnal (and additional music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz), started out as Mr. Tebelak's master's thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Its humble, experimental quality is what endears you to the show — both on and off-Broadway — and at the regional and community theater level.
"Godspell," like the text on which it is based, doesn't need a lot of embellishment. Strong voices and a sense of commitment, and you're good to go. That's why overproduced, gimmicky productions like the one at Olney (directed by Eve Muson) leave one baffled and exhausted instead of exhilarated.
The stagecraft orgy kicks off with a predictable slide show of iconic pop culture images from the last century up to the present time — everything from nuclear bombs to Third World famine and Hurricane Katrina. Before you can say "Second Coming," Jesus (Luke Smith) appears, wearing a lifeguard rescue T-shirt and a genially intense manner.
Jesus and a fiery rock star, John the Baptist/Judas (L.C. Harden Jr.), lead a young and top-notch cast through various parables and musical numbers. First, they shed their "Rent"-like urban togs for the most unflattering and distracting costumes in recent memory; a grotesque hybrid of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland."
What's worse, though, is ruining one of the play's finest moments — the first time we hear the hit song "Day by Day" — by having the cast tugging on these Cirque du Soleil aberrations.
The inflatable skirts, puffy protuberances and neon kneepads of Vasilija Zivanic's costumes seem to be in epic battle with the cast, who manage to win out in the end due to sheer talent. Score one for youth. But even they seem a bit stymied by the director's drawn-out attempts to be topical and kooky, especially in a skit involving the game show "Family Feud" that contains references to Vice President Dick Cheney and celebutante Paris Hilton.
The vaudeville touches largely fall flat, a hip-hop dance-off seems desperate and old hat, and the song "Turn Back, O Man" is not improved by burlesque bumps and grinds. One of the few times the updating works is when the story of Lazarus is enlivened by mock cheerleading, a direct "borrow" from the musical "Spamalot."
The first act bears the brunt of all this fussy folderol; the second moves much faster and smoother. When the show relaxes and the cast gets to sing and express faith and emotion, "Godspell" regains its homespun magic. The Crucifixion scene at the end is handled with stark drama and is searingly effective. The young ensemble is uniformly excellent, but the standouts include Florrie Bagel, Vishal Vaidya and Boo Killebrew, all of whom possess stellar voices and deliver their songs with a passion that's never cloying.
When watching an unnecessarily trumped up "Godspell," you have to wonder if the director doesn't trust the source material.
If you can't trust the Bible, what can you trust?
(TWO AND ONE-HALF STARS) WHAT: "Godspell," originally conceived by John-Michael Tebelak, music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays; 1:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays; 6:30 p.m., Sundays. Through July 29. TICKETS: $25 to $46 PHONE: 301/924-3400 WEB SITE: www.olneytheatre.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS