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Stage Light

March 18, 1999|ROBERT KOEHLER

Clearly, this is Stephen Schwartz's moment. Riding a wave of acclaim for the LosAngeles-area premiere of his most recent musical, "Children of Eden," and his song score for "The Prince of Egypt," the composer-lyricist seems to be everywhere.

Even his first musical, "Godspell," written when he was 22, is receiving new life in an updated version by the musical production group, La Petite Musicale, at Studio City's Excalibur Theatre.

Schwartz, now in his early 50s, has said he wished "Godspell" could be remodeled for the 1990s. It was conceived in the late 1960s by Schwartz and director John-Michael Tebelak with a Jesus-like prophet leading a group of hippies.

Updating the work is precisely the intent of co-directors Gary B. Lamb and William A. Reilly. But although they've amassed an energetic ensemble led by Rodney Hicks (of the original Broadway "Rent" cast) as the Prophet, their new concept is an experiment in serious need of tinkering.

While the old hippie "Godspell" is a silly relic, any new "Godspell" has to take into account the show's built-in factors, especially how the Prophet is able to draw his motley crew together to hear the word of the Lord and love their neighbors.

Hippies were a natural audience for this back in 1971 (when it opened in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum), but who would a Prophet gather off the streets of L.A. circa 1999?

Possibly a New Age group in need of a new home? Y2K fear-addled Apocalyptics in need of some reassurance? No, at Excalibur, it's an alley filled with rough street people, ranging from a drug dealer (the Judas character, strongly underplayed by Luke Darnell to a Goth runaway (beautiful-voiced Meghan Truesdell) to a surly ex-Brit white supremacist (Curt Bonnem, with an uneasy Cockney accent).

Watching "Godspell" always requires a certain leap of faith to embrace the Prophet's religiosity, which goes far beyond teaching the Golden Rule. But this revival extends that leap to impossible lengths. Even accepting that this "Lower Depths"-like range of types would hang together in the same alley, it's beyond unlikely that these street-hardened toughs would give the Prophet one minute of their time, let alone two hours.

Stranger yet for a '90s version is the virtual absence of hip-hop street culture. Indeed, characters like Wil Bowers' comic, swaggering drag queen; Paula Kay Perry's blabbering bag lady; and Seth Hampton's beefcakey hustler suggest the Reagan, not the Tupak, era. Schwartz's bland song score (hurt by a repetitive, upbeat tone with little variation) precludes rap, but that doesn't rule out hip-hop attitude.

You believe in the vibrant Hicks, though, on numbers such as "Save the People," "Alas for You" and a clever soft-shoe bit with Darnell on "All for the Best." Dean Cameron's alley set looks like a dangerous place, and Stephen Allison's lights save the most atmospheric effects for last.

"Godspell," Excalibur Theatre, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends April 25. $20-$25. (818) 980-2994. Running time: 2 hours.

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