Thursday, June 5, 2008

Cardboard Christians

Music & lyrics by Michael Friedman
Book & lyrics by John Dempsey and Rinne Groff
Directed by Gary Griffin
Starring Josh Breckinridge, John Dossett, Mary Faber, Juliana Ashley Hansen, Curtis Holbrook, Van Hughes, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Julia Murney, Jason Michael Snow, Aaron Tveit, Emily Walton, Morgan Weed, Daniel Zaitchik

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Celia Keenan-Bolger,
Mary Faber and
Juliana Ashley Hansen
(photo Joan Marcus)
The movie Saved!, which cleverly satirized both Christian evangelism and teenage confusion, is now the Off-Broadway musical Saved. The dropped exclamation point nods to what’s missing from the new version – namely, sharp observation and the facing of thorny issues.

This pleasantly bland show follows the plot and characters of the film, which was written by Michael Urban and director Michael Dannelly, and which boasted a cast including Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, Jena Malone and Martin Donovan. The aptly named Mary (Celia Keenan-Bolger), one of the most popular students at a very Christian high school, is told by her boyfriend Dean (Aaron Tveit) that he’s gay. A vision of Jesus prods her to help Dean any way she can. After losing her virginity to him, getting pregnant, and seeing Dean taken away to have his homosexuality “cured,” Mary realizes that her faith-based community might just be the problem.

The characters surrounding Mary are various types of self-delusional youngsters, and the parents and other adults who made them that way. Ultra-devout Hilary Faye (Mary Faber) is the leader of the Christian Belles, a singing trio of which Mary is a part. Lana (Juliana Ashley Hansen) is the third Christian Belle member, who once had her “oral virginity” restored. Lillian (Julia Murney), Mary’s clueless mother, is having an affair with the hypocritical head of the school, Pastor Skip (John Dossett). The pastor’s son, Patrick (Van Hughes), has a crush on Mary. Hilary Faye’s wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Curtis Holbrook) is the school’s black sheep; his kindred spirit is Cassandra (Morgan Weed), a Jewish transfer student.

The movie Saved! was a humorous glimpse of a segment of American society that has walked in lockstep with the current president. If these targets were fish in a barrel, at least they were ridiculed with a certain affection. The musical Saved prefers being non-confrontational; its generic, smoothed-out sensibility might make the show a candidate for transfer to Broadway, where such toothlessness is all the rage.

The laughs are certainly there, even if they are watered down.. But the songs are mediocre, stopping the show dead with their generic pop-rock rhythms. Michael Friedman’s tunes are totally interchangeable. One song, Patrick’s “Make It True,” apes the raucous Spring Awakening show-stopper “The Bitch of Living” as the youthful cast stomps and flails about in the desperate hope of creating the same kind of energy fueling that hit show. (No such luck.)

The biggest missed opportunity in this competent but underwhelming musical is its finale, “Corinthians.” The song allows every character the chance to ruminate and realize that nothing in this world is truly black and white -- but since no gray areas were seen in the previous two-plus hours of the show, it’s too little too late.

Director Gary Griffin's cast is large and energetic. Faber, Hansen, Holbrook, Hughes, Tveit, and Weed artfully tread the fine line between playing teenagers sincerely and spoofing them, while Murney and Dossett do wonders with two of the show’s sketchy adult roles. But it’s too bad that Celia Keenan-Bolger is this mediocre show’s lead; though she's proficient, her colorless personality makes Mary common when she needs to be unique.

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