Godspell, Union Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Forty years after a West End premiere starring Jeremy Irons, Julie Covington, Marti Webb and a red-nosed, clownish David Essex as Jesus, Godspell has returned with a new Easter message: God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, with rhythm and blues and potted quotations from the St Matthew Gospel.

My heart sank, rather, at the sight of the cast coming to life like drama students after a late night out, stretching their limbs and gazing into the middle distance while acknowledging each other's presence with knowing nods and winks.

But then the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz kick in and the songs really ain't too bad.

I remembered the stirring, anthemic "Prepare Ye the Way of then Lord" and the bluesy ballad "Day by Day" but had completely forgotten how clever and insinuating are numbers like "Light of the World" and the beautiful plangent sequel to the Last Supper, "On the Willows."

But whereas Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber went for rock oratorio broke in Jesus Christ Superstar at almost the same time, Schwartz had the task of clamping his songs on to a workshop "conception" by John-Michael Tebelak that has a tricky mix of trite tribalism and bug-eyed optimistic piety.

It's Hair-lite with holy harmony among the hippies, but Michael Strassen's punchy production replaces flower power with junkie juice and even draws on Bieber fever and the "love your enemies" parable as a prompt for cheek turning in the nether regions.

Billy Cullum is a fierce, capricious Jesus, arriving on a motorbike to discharge his parables of lilies in the field and the prodigal son, before being "nailed" to an illuminated cross while his followers set out to build a beautiful city, not of angels, but of men. Ah, men... and hallelujah.

To 7 May (020 7261 9876)

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