nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
June 1, 2008
Of the experiences that can make one regret putting forth the effort to attend the theatre on a particular evening, there are the shows that induce slumber; the shows that start to induce slumber and then jolt one back to irritated consciousness; and the shows that completely shut one down rather like Lou Gehrig's Disease—intelligence held captive by the unrelenting advance of thoughtless, aggressive, deadening mediocrity.
I hasten to add that although Saved, the musical version of the 2004 film, plummets into this third category, the fault, dear Browser, is not in the stars, but in the writing. Indeed, the disparity between the level of extraordinarily talented, sought-after actors and the product they are forced to peddle is the most notable thing about this piece, beyond the fact that most musicals of the "I have a property! I have capital! Let's put on a show!" variety, happen in the realm of commercial theatre, not at nonprofits such as Playwrights Horizons, where it is currently "running" (as the phrase goes). At this point, what would normally be dull becomes disturbing.
Skip this paragraph if you dislike plot-spoilers. Ahem. The plot. Mary, a sensitive popular girl at a Stepford-esque Christian high school learns that the power of prayer has its limits—Jesus seems to have abandoned her after she becomes pregnant in a selfless attempt to save her boyfriend from his nascent homosexuality, and she must rely on the unlikeliest of people: herself, the goth-Jewish new girl, her ex-best-friend Hilary's wheelchair-bound brother, and the gently-rebellious son of the principal. As Mary, Celia Keenan-Bolger is the very essence of vulnerable incredulity, while Mary Faber resists caricature and makes us feel compassion for the snarky Hilary Faye. As the heavily-eye-shadowed non-Christian interloper, Morgan Weed expertly tosses away her lines, the laughs belonging entirely to her. The droll Curtis Holbrook, as the boy on wheels, is such a pleasure to watch, nearly transcending his cringe-worthy dialogue (see below); and completing this hunk triumvirate, Aaron Tveit, as the gay, and Van Hughes, as "The Pastor's Son" (a statement of fact somehow deemed worthy of song; see below), are committed and compelling, imbuing the earnest writing with a sense of genuine angst. Julia Murney has some fine moments as Mary's mother Lillian, who has a Remains of the Day pre-occupation with the school principal, Pastor Skip (the fetching John Dossett). I must also make mention of Josh Breckenridge, Juliana Ashley Hansen, Jason Michael Snow, Emily Walton, and Daniel Zaitchik, whose roles are slightly less pivotal, but whose performances are no less memorable.
And then there is the writing. As Saved is nearly thru-sung, it stands to reason that the dominant voice would be that of composer and co-lyricist Michael Friedman (though John Dempsey and Rinne Groff are credited with lyrics as well as book). For purposes of fairness, I will just say that the Committee has written nearly 20 songs that dwell for some time on emotions that any of the fine actors in this ensemble could convey in a single facial expression. I've not actually seen the movie—I hear it's quite a sharp satire—so I cannot discern which bon mots sprung from the collective mind of Dempsey and Groff and which from the screenplay by Brian Dannelly and Michael Urban. However, zingers such as "I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth," are a bit long in the tooth, yes? Unless the Committee was interested in doing a period piece set in 2004, in which case references to Facebook are anachronistic (the high school version wasn't launched until 2005).
I don't have much to say about Gary Griffin's direction, except that he seems to have appropriated certain gestures and blocking from the touring company of Rent. And I don't know if Sergio Trujillo's choreography would be as sexy if enacted by a less comely cast. Perhaps this means I should be commending Alaine Alldaffer, who's listed as responsible for casting.
Ugh! Why is this bland, manufactured, overlong piece of commerce being done at a nonprofit? Playwrights Horizons is often the domain of exciting new and established voices; yet too many voices at once creates nothing but a din. This Manhattan Project approach can only have one outcome—and in that way, Saved is indeed quite successful.