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Godspell

Without the strength of its music, Godspell is just a tired old show.

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Let me put it this way: Godspell, now playing at South Park Theatre, has a wonderful cast. The performers in this mostly-female production are funny, sharp and physically agile. They improvise effortlessly, and they work well together, playing word games and pantomiming scenes with energy and zest. They even dance like they mean it. Phase 3 Productions knows how to pick a good ensemble, and if this cast ever reunites for a Sarah Ruhl play, call me up. 

But a musical? No. Not even an avant-garde 1971 musical about Jesus Christ. A musical can survive lousy actors -- as Broadway proves every day -- but it demands real singers. Not just actors who can carry a tune, with pretty vibratos and the occasional belted note. Actual, bona fide singers. 

Part of the problem is Godspell itself, a hippie gospel that has aged poorly in its 40 years. When Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelek created the show, it was a kind of coup, partly because it told a pure, poppy, playful version of the teachings of Jesus. The open-ended script is almost modular: The apostles have appeared as circus clowns, construction workers and astronauts. Directors often add inside jokes, as Phase 3 has done, giving the dialogue a local flavor. 

Still, the anchor for this show is neither costume nor catechism, but the music. "Day By Day" was a colossal radio hit, and Godspell's score is an indelible part of the Broadway songbook. If the songs fail, the show fails. 

The singers of Phase 3 aren't bad, but they are inconsistent. And with every flat note, odd harmony, cracked falsetto and missed lyric, the recital withers a little more. 

In every other way, director Dek Ingraham strives for greatness with his almost entirely female ensemble. (One man is lucky enough to share the stage.) Ingraham has gone so far as to present a female Jesus, played with warm aplomb by Delilah Picart. But mixed-gender casting, even for the Son of God, is a ho-hum choice these days. Without the strength of its music, Godspell is just a tired old show. Phase 3 hasn't weathered hard times just to end up with a lackluster Broadway standard. And no one should have to schlep to South Park to see one. 

  

GODSPELL continues through Oct. 8. Phase 3 Productions at South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive, South Park. 412-831-8552 or www.southparktheatre.com.

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