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'GODSPELL' INVENTIVE, TOUCHING

Upstairs over a gay watering hole called Roxy's Green Room may seem like an unlikely place to hear the Good News from The Gospel of St. Matthew.

But isn't that the whole idea behind Stephen Schwartz and John Michael Tebelak's ageless and musically vernacular "Godspell," the happily irreverent version of those parables and homilies by Jesus, whose teachings often appear in the strangest of places?

Director Kelli Bocock-Natale, no newcomer to "Godspell" -- she led a storied production of the show a decade ago -- understands the endless variations of the play very well, and this time the locale is an abandoned church. Into the debris comes a ragtag work party of angry male jail inmates, grousing about the cleanup detail.

Suddenly interested in a pile of dusty books -- philosophers, theologians, other deep thinkers -- the men are visited by a stranger, and a series of personal epiphanies begin.

Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics to 16 songs, and Tebelak the book -- thanks, St. Matthew, for the "material" -- as the gentle stranger uncovers brotherhood, mutual need and common human experiences among the men and his message is clear and concise: "These are my words. This is my life. Heed. Follow my example and love one another as I have loved you."

He teaches as clown, court jester, minstrel and ultimately, as the men evolve into his apostles, as Jesus -- man -- leader. As to the lessons, the stranger tells his new followers: "Test your comprehension; there's going to be a quiz at your ascension."

Songs tell much of this, of course. The Buffalo United Artists' cast does sing but, let's face it, not always well. To borrow a line from theater critic Mel Gussow, the guys here are "actors first, singers third."

But off-key can charm, and that is often so here.

Bobby Cooke does fine justice to "All Good Gifts"; Tim Finnegan -- also the betrayer Judas -- leads on "By My Side"; Eric Rawski romps through the show's signature tune, "Day by Day" and "We Beseech Thee"; Loren Horwitz does a plaintive "On the Willows"; and Chris Kelly -- a patient, knowing Jesus -- - handles his vocal chores well, particularly the culminating "On My Own."

Others in the excellent cast include Matthew Crehan Higgins, Luther Nelson, Bret Runyon -- doubling as musical director -- Kate Elliot and Leah Russo in a brief appearance as a tempting Mary Magdalene.

Director Bocock-Natale loves to push the envelope, and the BUA is the place to do it.

There are double meanings galore, several references to the gay lifestyle -- "based on the writings of St. Matthew" perhaps should sport an asterisk -- but traditional heavily outweighs shock here, and this "Godspell" is, all in all, lovingly constructed, endlessly inventive and ultimately touching.

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