The 2011 Broadway revival of "Godspell," a 1971 musical with songs by a pre-"Wicked" Stephen Schwartz, brought the Bible-based show into modern times with a high-spirited cast that joked and riffed its way through the Gospel of St. Matthew.
The new production at Theatre Downtown, co-produced with the Vine Theatre, is the first local staging of the revised version, and it bubbles over with youthful enthusiasm.
But without some pauses in the energetic pace — just a few moments of quiet — all the joking and cheering start to drown out the underlying messages in Jesus' parables, the very lessons that make them so powerful.
"Godspell" is a loosely strung together series of well-known Bible stories: The prodigal son, the good Samaritan. Only Jesus and Judas are named characters; the other performers are merely followers.
The setting is generally abstract. At Theatre Downtown it's at a present-day school on a handsome multi-level set by Matt Rudman.
Director Zach Van Dyke's young cast are at home with the updated comic references. Nothing seems forced as nods to Judge Judy, Casey Anthony, Charlie Sheen, "The Lion King" fly by lickety-split. And the laughs they get are well-deserved, even for such goofy ideas as poor, hungry Lazarus wishing for a table scrap … or a Pop-Tart.
Visual jokes are well-staged, too: In the parable of the sowing of the seeds, it turns out the seed that lands among the "weeds" is going to have a bad case of the munchies.
Bryan Royals is a gentle Jesus and Patrick Sylvester is a restless Judas, but Van Dyke fails to give the rest of the male ensemble distinctive personalities. That's not an issue in the lighthearted first act. But when things turn much more serious as the Crucifixion approaches, it's harder to form an emotional connection with performers who lack individuality; the young men seem interchangeable, like the good-natured, clean-cut kids in a Disney stage show.
Part of the blurred characters may be because the ensemble is a few singers larger than in the recent Broadway revival.
The women make bigger impressions. Caroline Drage does a slyly wicked take on goody-two-shoes Glinda from "Wicked." Ashton Symonds has a comic Southern drawl and a way with amusing facial expressions. And Rhyan Michele Adams has a radiant presence, both comic and vocally, shown best as she belts her way through "Learn Your Lessons Well."
St. Matthew's Gospel is a feel-good Gospel in that Jesus talks a lot about love and forgiveness. Combined with Schwartz's catchy tunes like "Day By Day" and "We Beseech Thee," "Godspell" leaves a song in your soul. But you might wish it left a little something more.
• What: Theatre Downtown-Vine Theatre production of the Stephan Schwartz-John Michael Tebelak musical
• Length: 2:25, including intermission
• Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
• When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through March 17
• Tickets: $18-$22
• Call: 407-841-0083Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun