In what seems to be a masterpiece of misconception, Gaydar Productions has decided to produce a version of Godspell set in a gay bar. To this I ask, isn't Godspell gay enough to begin with? And I don't mean gay in the disparaging way that teenagers use the word, but in the sense that was still current when the musical was first produced in 1971, as having or showing a merry, lively mood. After all, this is a musical in which
hippies prance around onstage in clown outfits retelling the life of Jesus, beaming with joy while answering the last great unasked question of the Sixties: Can hippies love Jesus too? Yes, they can, and how!
For whatever reason, Godspell remains a popular musical. Not being Christian, I can only speculate. My theory is that Stephen Schwartz's songs caught on among the mellow circles of teens who are wont to sit cross-legged on the lawn while smiling youth directors with 12-string guitars lead special "alternative" services at liberal-minded churches. I suspect I'm right, as a cursory Internet search of the words church, music, and Godspell returns almost 3,300 hits, such at the announcement from Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, California, heralding a Sunday choir performance that features excerpts from the musical. (Only the Unitarians would feel comfortable founding a church on the hallowed ground of Mt. Diablo!)
Well, didn't everybody have a crush on the youth director of the religious institution of his high school years? There's a peculiar fog that settles over these teen experiences, making otherwise embarrassing musical selections seem somehow poignant. Suddenly a service that consists of the music of Cat Stevens, James Taylor, and (in my case) Debbie Friedman becomes unspeakably hip rather than humiliating. As a result of this fog of youth, these musical selections continue to hold a special place in our hearts, long after we should have learned better.
Now Gaydar Productions is answering the last great unasked question of the Nineties: Can homosexuals love Jesus too? The answer, of course, is and how! It turns out that Gaydar's masterpiece of misconception very nearly saves Godspell from being Godspell, and very nearly turns it into a pleasant night of theater. It helps that director Rick Anderson has whittled the book down to just its bare armature, consisting almost entirely of parables by Jesus drawn from the Gospel of Matthew. It is not often that musicals use as their inspiration revolutionary demands for absolute love and absolute forgiveness. And, when the play begins, as this one does, with Jesus (John Trones) tearing up a pamphlet that reads "GOD HATES FAGS," these demands suddenly seem contemporary.
The 11-person cast improvises much of the rest of the dialogue for the play, and so we have such surprises as two drag queens (Jon Mikkelsen and Terry Helland) battling each other with an escalating barrage of insults ("Tori Spelling called--she wants her ugly back") as Jesus exhorts them to turn the other cheek. Similarly, Jesus performs "All the Best for Jesus" with John the Baptist (Brandon York) while decked out in high-heeled pumps, dancing an off-balance Charleston.
It's a daffy bit of recontextualization, yes--I can't think of a single religious scholar who has argued that Jesus' words needed a little bit of camping up to make them fresh again. But fresh they are--sometimes very, as when Jesus enters the gay bar, broom in hand, sweeping up shredded anti-gay literature. He pushes past drag queens who are delicately sipping cocktails through straws and circles combat boot-clad dykes playing pool. "I came to set things straight," he declares, to the aghast response of everybody in the bar. He grins sheepishly, then, and adds, "metaphorically speaking."
Chalk it up to the Minnesota legacy of queer icon Tammy Faye or blame it on the devil: Concurrent with Gaydar's Godspell, the Hey City Theater has just opened an all-male drag version of Nunsense, titled Nunsense A-Men! First things first: Doesn't that title violate some grammatical rule about not mixing puns in a single phrase? As to the production itself, I will begin by asking, does Nunsense really need to be a drag show? Wasn't it enough of a drag to begin with?
It's the same old Nunsense, by the way--the same slapped-together collection of groan-inducing jokes ("How do you make holy water? Boil the hell out of it!"), bland musical numbers, and fatuous plot points that runs interminably in community theaters across this country. But wade into Nunsense's shallow waters and you find a surprisingly deep undercurrent of camp. The Order of the Little Sisters of Hoboken might ostensibly be performing an impromptu musical. But this slight plot was always an excuse for Liza Minnelli jokes, japes about poppers, a Waylon Flowers and Madame-styled ventriloquist act, and other such frivolous nonsense that seems less at home in a convent than at a...well, a gay bar.
And some of the cast would seem at home there, too--particularly Doug Anderson, who played an accordion-toting Latin beauty in Pageant at the Fringe Festival. He seems entirely comfortable in drag here, too: His oversized grin, spectacular and unforced, is the only good punch line in the play.
Oddly, both Nunsense creator Dan Goggin (who directed this rendition) and producer Sandy Hey have stressed publicly that this is "definitely not camp and not a drag show" (I cite the Hey City Web page here), which is a miracle of self-denial, as the show is both. Had they taken one last step and made the show an elaborate, explicit campfest like Godspell, it might have been watchable as well.