The Kansas City Repertory Theatre's season opener seems to embark on an ambitious mission with its first words: "Do you have any idea how amazing it is to have faith?" A musical addressing that question with daring, imagination and probing intelligence would have made fascinating and vital theater. Unfortunately, Saved! is not that musical.
Though its exploration of the topic of faith is earnest, it is also disappointingly shallow. Even its definition of the word faith mutates so randomly from scene to scene that by the time it reappears as the show's last word, it has become nearly meaningless. This is emblematic of the musical as a whole. Despite a couple of catchy tunes, the book is muddled and halfhearted. The characters and lyrics are unremarkable, neither reaching deep nor soaring high. There isn't that leap into the divine that one hopes for in a musical, let alone one speaking to faith.
Saved! was born as a little-seen 2004 teen-comedy movie of the same title and born again in 2008 as an off-Broadway musical by composer and lyricist Michael Friedman; co-lyricists John Dempsey and Rinne Groff wrote the book. Despite controversial themes (religious hypocrisy, homosexuality, teen pregnancy) and an acid tone, the movie was critically well-received. But there was no saving the stage musical from lukewarm reviews. Nearly all accused it of losing the movie's satirical edge. The production died after three weeks, but a revamped version, led by original director Gary Griffin, rose again this past weekend to launch the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's new season.
Cut to an energetic 95 minutes, this Saved! overcomes an exposition-heavy first scene to hook us into the story of four seniors at American Eagle Christian High: Mary; her boyfriend, Dean; her best friend, Hilary Faye; and Patrick, the pastor's son, recently returned from years as a missionary in Gabon. Dean, who is likely gay, is shipped to a de-gaying camp; neither coincidentally nor immaculately, Mary gets pregnant. All four characters struggle with issues of faith, friendship, loyalty and family, but only at after-school-special depth.
The writers indulge in cheap broadsides. One character's cousin, we are reassured, "gave up her whoring ways and now ... works at the second largest Wal-Mart in Ohio." So a show that ought to go where angels fear to tread keeps religion at arm's length, using it mostly as colorful background for standard high school drama, like a Christian Glee.
It's not just faith that lacks definition. Many of the characters never move beyond the generic. Most problematic is the central role of Mary. Apparently extremely naïve, she believes that she has experienced a personal visitation from Jesus, who asked her to save her boyfriend from homosexuality. But it's implausible that a girl so devout would engage in premarital fornication — which she has been taught is a great sin — with no emotional aftereffects. Because the story doesn't take Mary seriously as a character, she's left with no plausible reaction. Unfortunately, this makes it harder to feel for her as she suffers through months of secret pregnancy alone. Laura Huizenga as Mary generates sympathy with what she's given, but she can cover only some of the book's holes.
Justis Bolding has fun as holier-than-thou queen bee Hilary Faye, and David Hull makes an appealing Dean. Nick Spangler has fine moments as Patrick, the conflicted pastor's son, particularly in "Make It True," a call for living Christ-like values, rather than just preaching about them. With their matching cartoon New Yawk accents, the characters of Jewish goth reprobate Cassandra (Gillian Goldberg) and Hilary Faye's wheelchair-bound brother, Roland (Patrick Andrews), are played far too broadly, but their love story still manages to be winning.