Hard to believe a nice Jewish boy like Stephen Schwartz cut his teeth on three projects with Christian themes more than 40 years ago: producing the rock concept album “The Survival of St. Joan,” writing lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s updating of the Catholic service in “Mass,” and writing music and lyrics for a funky version of the biblical Gospels in “Godspell.”
The last of those opened off-Broadway in 1971 and made him famous at 23. It had a 40th-anniversary Broadway revival two years ago, then embarked on the national tour that has brought it to Knight Theater this week in the Broadway Lights series. So what does the new one offer?
Hard rock orchestrations, confetti cannons, a tireless and strong-voiced cast, sock puppets, jokes about Honey Boo Boo and Donald Trump, shout-outs to the Carolina Panthers and NASCAR Hall of Fame, hip-hop interludes with indecipherable lyrics, multiple moments of audience participation, actors pretending to be sheep and speaking in bleating voices, ninja moves, Gangnam-style dancing and a guy introducing a parable by bellowing, “Let’s get ready to rumble. It’s a Charlotte Smackdown!”
It has pretty much everything, in fact, except a soul.
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All but two songs get delivered as fist-punching, belt-your-heart-out anthems. The abrupt, painless crucifixion comes in a hail of power chords from an electric guitar. The gentler humor of the original now prompts broad gags – when Jesus says “but,” an ensemble member bends over to show us his bottom – delivered at interludes in Jesus’ Non-Stop Dance Party.
So when the potentially touching moments of Christ’s betrayal and agony at Gethsemane finally arrive, they don’t resonate. Jake Stern has a voice that can be sweet or powerful as the ringmaster Jesus of the first act and the brash evangelist of the second. But anguish, doubt and a sense of loss remain foreign to him.
The show declares itself from the new opening number, in which philosophers gibber on cellphones about the idea that the universe begins and ends with rational thought. This shower of babble from Socrates, Galileo and others doesn’t make sense historically, but it’s soon countermanded by perky, parable-dropping J.C.
Director David Hogan has adjusted “Godspell” for audiences that need constant diversion and repetition. Not a word can pass in a parable without someone making a funny face or a grunting noise or skipping about the stage. When Jesus announces he will be followed by false messiahs, all nine ensemble members step forth pretending to become one: Hilary Clinton, Simon Cowell, Sarah Palin, etc.
There’s not a weak vocal link. Janelle Murray shakes the rafters of Knight Theater with a gospel-style “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Graham Parkhurst rocks out on “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” though his John the Baptist all but wags a tail in Jesus’ presence. Michael Hogeveen delivers a stirring “We Beseech Thee” and leaps about convincingly as a goat.
But the whole show is about rocking, shaking and leaping: There’s virtually nothing meditative, warm or tender. Call me old-fashioned, but the original message has been Godspoiled.