Watching the revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical "Godspell" at Ford's Theatre is not unlike revisiting a childhood home and discovering -- sadly, but inevitably, perhaps -- that it's a much smaller and less magical place than you'd remembered. You want to look on it fondly, and you try for a while, but sooner or later you have to admit that the attic that once hid so many enchantments is just an attic -- and a rather ordinary one at that -- and the mighty forest in the back yard is a cluster of scrub pines.
Only a dozen years ago, "Godspell" was firmly ensconced at Ford's, well on its way to an 18-month run, unprecedented then for Washington. When the show finally closed, it was not so much because there was a shortage of patrons, who were coming back two and three times, but because a little variety was deemed necessary for the artistic health of Ford's. A lot of water has spilled over the theatrical dam since then. Much of what was innovative and fresh about "Godspell" has become common practice on our stages. Such is the ironic price of success: Originality fosters imitation, which breeds overfamiliarity. You can easily end up wondering what all the shouting was about in the first place.
In its day, the show did seem to represent a happy synthesis of all those forces that had been gathering momentum in the 1960s: flower power, pop art, the hippie rebellion, rock music and a general mistrust of the establishment. Here was a congenial group of ragamuffins in clown-face, acting out the life and teachings of Jesus, as if the theater were one big playpen. Jesus even wore a Superman outfit and performed magic tricks. No matter that "Godspell's" irreverence was really no irreverence at all. (The show actually made everything disturbing about the 1960s safe and cute.) At Ford's, it played spunky and a personable cast invested all the off-the-cuff remarks and the party-game antics with refreshing spontaneity.
If time has taken much of the bloom off this rose, the remaining petals have been plucked by David Bell, Ford's new artistic director. One can understand his desire to give the show what is being trumpeted as "an all-new '80s look." Unfortunately, it turns out to be the antiseptically cheerful look of a TV commercial, introducing a super-duper cavity-fighting toothpaste to an appearance-obsessed nation. If the original "Godspell" was Raggedy Ann on a romp, this version is the new Barbie doll, raring to take her place on Madison Avenue.
The 10 cast members, dressed in spanking white circus costumes, have zeal and energy in abundance. They beam like lighthouses from their stations on the circular wooden ramp that serves as a set. They ooze sincerity as they lift their voices (and their squirrel-bright eyes) in the show's most contagious melody, "Day by Day." They've got the synchronized steps of Bell's half-time choreography down pat. Some of them may be truly talented.
It's difficult to tell because the production functions on such an aggressively upbeat level that "Up With People" looks morose by comparison. Nothing seems born of the moment. The enthusiasm extends across the board, unmodified from one performance to the next. When the actors dip into an on-stage trunk for bits and pieces of clothing to augment -- and presumably personalize -- their costumes, the hats and capes and scarves that come out are color-coordinated. There's simply no breathing room for an individual temperament to assert itself.
As a result, what used to be the show's most moving scene -- Jesus bidding His loving playmates goodbye -- comes and goes like all the rest. In the course of Ford's earlier production, you may remember, each of the cast members developed a signature -- a gesture, an expression, an idiosyncrasy -- that was his alone and summed up his particular personality. As Jesus moved among the assembled company, the foreknowledge of the Crucifixion weighing heavily on His brow, those quirky little signatures surfaced one by one for the last time. It made for a wonderfully wistful leave-taking.
The tactic doesn't work this time around for the simple reason that the performances have all been tailored on the same synthetic model. Whether this constitutes evidence of the new conformism among today's young or simply Bell's home decorator approach to directing, I am not prepared to judge. (Bell does love to trot out bolts of boldly colored parachute silk, however, and have the actors waft them up and down, creating, if not oceans and heavens, at least a breeze.) But blandness is the inevitable upshot.
There's no point landing too hard on Eric Aaron, who plays Jesus, except to say that his gleaming smile, ski-slopes tan and blown-dried salon haircut suggest the preppy qualities that are characteristic of the evening as a whole. Edwina Lewis gives some signs in "Learn Your Lessons Well" that she has a bluesy voice worthy of better showcasing. And John Ganzer sings "All Good Gifts" with forthright strength, even though Bell has relegated him to the remotest perch possible on the set.
A few fleeting moments may reawaken your old memories, but in the end you will be saddened. The old "Godspell" is no longer. And the new one that Ford's has invented to take its place is nothing more than a blatant attempt to drum up a box-office success. It's enough to make a cynic of you, which is one thing the original "Godspell" never did.
Godspell, conceived by John-Michael Tebelak, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed and choreographed by David Bell. Sets, James Fouchard; costumes, Doug Marmee; lighting, Jeff Davis. With Eric Aaron, Janet Aldrich, Robin Baxter, John Ganzer, Edwina Lewis, Steve Blanchard. At Ford's Theatre for an open-ended run.