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Lost Sheep In Central Park

Godspell at the Abbey Cinema directed by David Greene

By Gilbert B. Kaplan

HOW sadly we would have dozed down U.S. 95 to Washington, waved flags through the streets of Boston, opened our hands for hordes of McCarthy buttons and opened our hearts to the prospects of peace if we had known the fruits of all our efforts would be Godspell. A Jesus movement composed of empty rhetoric of sharing and contrived ritual of love has spawned an equally uninspired film. Godspell is devoid of charm, wit, taste, humor and even a semblance of intelligence. If the film has any interest it's not what is on screen, but in the emotional turmoil that must have antedated its making. What disenchantment and anger has forced the American apocalypse-wish into such high gear?

The film is neither realistic nor imaginative, just perversely sentimental. It's set in a sterile New York City of empty streets, beautiful skylines, grassy parks, and colorful junkyards. Ten scrubbed youth-for-Nixon types romp through this wonderland discovering faith. These are good kids, close to the mainstream of American life. They don't smoke, drink, or care about sex. All of their emotions are conveniently sublimated into religious faith. When they do reach out to each other, it's in a sappy, harmless way. The modern day Jesus and his John the Baptist are played by two adolescent Adonises who spend a good deal of time hugging each other.

WHAT THERE IS of plot comes from the Book of Matthew, which most people know already. The Biblical myth loses its metaphysical connotations, leaving an oversimplified story of eight innocents in search of an answer. John the Baptist pulls a flower bedecked cart over the Brooklyn Bridge one morning. He appears to the city's hungry souls in need of salvation. Their troubles are varied: one has spilled coffee on her waitress's uniform. Another is stuck in a traffic jam and a third is unfairly forced to wait in line to use a Xerox machine. He summons them to the Central Park fountain where, in the midst of absolution, Christ appears. "I wanna get washed up," says one disciple with hope in his eyes. "We'd do well now to do what God asks," says another, looking at Christ.

The disciples dance through deserted parks and alleys singing and enacting biblical parables in mime. The film develops neither theme nor character, but repeats the same boring stories about beggars and Samaritans. Continually the actors pantomime misers by contorting their faces and bend their bodies into weary beggars. The songs are as good as any chicken-rock. But someone might have told Steven Schwartz, the composer, that fast music isn't necessarily good music.

There is one good bit in the film. Jesus and John the Baptist -- who later becomes Judas -- do a vaudeville dance number, complete with top hats and canes, in front of the famous Bulova sign in Times Square. The computerized sign creates a precisely synchronized expansion of the two dancers going through their paces. The sign is amazing -- I once spent ten minutes hypnotized by it in Times Square. Unfortunately this bit lasts for only thirty seconds and the film drags on for about ninety minutes. The rest of the choreography, unaided by mechanical intervention, has all the vitality of a church supper.

GODSPELL relies mostly on faith, but if you're a lost sheep it won't convince you of anything but the fatuousness of the Jesus movement. Its adherents are an unlikely sort, interesting largely for the diverse backgrounds that lead them to the same place. I've known two of them. One was a girl from Coe College in Iowa whom I worked with in the Ivory Coast one summer. She was studying to be a nurse, and with immense devotion and unparalleled selflessness she cared for the sick, often staying up all night long sponging feverish foreheads. She also cried often, lamenting the hopelessness of religious devotion in a lonely world.

The other was a guitar playing vagabond who once infested my Adams House suite for several weeks. He slammed chords out of his guitar at any hour, refusing to go to the music room because he claimed he lost his inspiration by the time he got there. I've heard he since converted to Buddhism, more lately to record-making and Capitalism. With their devotion these people might find something meaningful in Godspell. For the rest of us it's vacuous.

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