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'Godspell' gets sweet treatment at Theatre Charlotte

“Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell,” the yin and yang of Christian rock musicals, opened in New York less than six months apart in 1971. “Superstar” was a cup brimming over with the Messiah's tears, “Godspell” a warm chalice of sweet wine.

My taste is for the acerbic “Superstar,” with its message that love conquers all only in some far-off heavenly realm. But if you prefer the hugs-and-smooches coziness of “Godspell,” you'll find an endearing version of it this month at Theatre Charlotte.

Yes, the play only briefly brings up Judas' naughtiness in the second act and ends in the gentlest crucifixion ever. Yes, there's a mournful song of farewell to the doomed savior; it sounds like a Beach Boys knock-off about parting from high school friends after graduation.

Those do little to darken the sunniness that pervades the first 75 percent of the story and ends it in the lovely song “Beautiful City.” Original conceiver/director John-Michael Tebelak adapted the Book of Matthew, and Stephen Schwartz later wrote music and lyrics that not only make lemonade out of life's lemons but add a hefty quantity of sugar.

Tebelak created the show in 1970 at Carnegie Mellon University, taking some lyrics from the Episcopal Hymnal and setting them to music by the cast members. One number, the atypically folk-like “By My Side,” remained in place after fellow CMU grad Schwartz composed a new, peppy score, which yielded a top-20 hit in 1972 with “Day By Day.”

That song exemplifies the main virtue and main vice of “Godspell,” linking an unshakeable melodic hook to a lyric consisting of one endlessly repeated sentence. The parables and homilies in this show are Christianity's Greatest Hits, delivered in bite-sized bits for unbelievers.

The title is apparently an antiquated spelling of “gospel” but doubly apt for this musical: The son of God, played here by blissful Joe McCourt, casts a spell on nine disciples. True, Judas splits. But the same actor plays John the Baptist, so he gets to soak up the sunshine in the final ensemble.

Director Ron Law abandons the harlequin makeup actors often wore in the 1970s versions. (Tebelak was influenced by Harvard University theologian Harvey Cox, famous for writing about a joyous, laughing Christ.)

Law wisely relies on the natural ebullience of his vigorous cast to put over the straightforward meaning of the play. He has updated it, and a line about John McCain's campaign gets the biggest laugh of the night. But cultural references span the last 75 years: I detected at least two homages to the Three Stooges, and two songs are delivered with hip-hop flair. Younger audiences wouldn't get Vito Abate's funny impression of TV host Ed Sullivan, but the people who attend Theatre Charlotte enjoyed him.

I thought at first that Law had gone too far, urging the cast to bleat as animals and goo-goo as thumb-sucking babies. But the musical is either childlike in its innocence or childish in its naïveté – you can decide for yourself – and he may have found the presentation that suits it best.

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