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updated: 6/12/2014 5:25 PM

Marriott's 'Godspell' goes contemporary, losing hippie-era edge

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  • Jesus (Brian Bohr, far right) leads the ensemble in song in "Godspell" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. This updated and revised take on the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical revue of Christian parables and upbeat pop songs makes its Chicago-area debut through Sunday, Aug. 10.

      Jesus (Brian Bohr, far right) leads the ensemble in song in "Godspell" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. This updated and revised take on the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical revue of Christian parables and upbeat pop songs makes its Chicago-area debut through Sunday, Aug. 10.
    Courtesy of Peter Coombs/Marriott Theatre

  • The ensemble of "Godspell" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire sing the praise-filled pop number "We Beseech Thee." This updated and revised take on the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical revue of Christian parables and upbeat pop songs makes its Chicago-area debut through Sunday, Aug. 10.

      The ensemble of "Godspell" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire sing the praise-filled pop number "We Beseech Thee." This updated and revised take on the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical revue of Christian parables and upbeat pop songs makes its Chicago-area debut through Sunday, Aug. 10.
    Courtesy of Peter Coombs/Marriott Theatre

  • Video: Marriott 'Godspell' montage

 
 

The hippies of the 1971 musical revue "Godspell" have been replaced with pretty, peppy contemporary Christians at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. It's for the Chicago-area premiere of the 2011 revised Broadway version of "Godspell," filled with New Testament parables and praise-filled pop songs.

Yet, whether modernizing was a good idea is debatable.

True, the Christian teachings drawn from the Gospels and adapted for "Godspell" by the late author John-Michael Tebelak are always relevant, no matter the era. Also, the catchy pop songs show what a huge debt contemporary Christian rock owes to "Godspell" songwriter Stephen Schwartz, who would go on to score other hit shows like "Pippin" and "Wicked."

But the subversiveness has been diluted in the updating. Back when it debuted in the midst of the Vietnam War, "Godspell" ruffled a few feathers by likening the day's draft-dodging hippies and peace-promoting flower children to the original followers of Christ -- something also touched upon by the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."

That edge is now missing, and "Godspell" comes off as too desperate to be hip by tossing in lame jokes referencing Twitter, Justin Bieber and even Donald Trump on "The Apprentice" -- as well as tasteless hotel product placement. Presenting "Godspell" as a hippie period piece might come off as dated, but that at least would have given the show some context.

Still, director/choreographer Matt Raftery has fashioned a continuously entertaining revue for Marriott Theatre that should please both newcomers as well as longtime fans who know all the lyrics to songs like "Day by Day" or "Beautiful City."

The first impression you get entering the theater is that you've wandered into the nursery playroom of a Christian mega church. Vibrant handmade art projects circle the multilevel stage of set designer Thomas M. Ryan, while lighting designer Jesse Klug applies every crayon color imaginable to illuminate the stories.

The young cast of 10 is supremely talented as they sing and dance up a storm. They may come off as overenthusiastic Bible camp counselors putting on a series of skits on the importance of turning the other cheek or loving thy neighbor, but they're all tirelessly dedicated to the material and full of joy.

Some standouts include Tom Vendafreddo for his highflying voice and onstage electronic keyboard jamming, while Devin DeSantis brings gravitas to his dual roles of John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot.

As Jesus, Brian Bohr commands authority, but his good looks make him appear like a modern-day guru who could also be hawking the latest dietary fad or fitness trend on top of his Christian teachings.

All in all, Marriott Theatre's "Godspell" comes off as one of the most entertaining Sunday school lessons you'll ever attend -- even if the updating doesn't always sit well with the show's origins.

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