SAVED * Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman * Book and lyrics by John Dempsey and Rinne Groff * Choreography by Sergio Trujillo * Directed by Gary Griffin * Playwrights Horizons, New York City (through July).

You might think you know what you’re getting with an Off-Broadway musical based on Saved!, the 2004 flick set in a Christian high school about a girl who’s pregnant and whose boyfriend is gay. But you might also be surprised. While the movie poured on the satire from the get-go, the musical (created by the prolific Michael Friedman, downtown playwright Rinne Groff, and John Dempsey, who wrote the cult hit Zombie Prom) takes a different strategy. Instead of playing to some pre-conceived dichotomy between hip urban liberals and corny, square, delusional right-wingers, the show creates a cozy, feel-good, welcoming utopian milieu, where people strive to have a better life by building community and supporting good values. The opening number, with its chorus of shiny, happy, self-questioning kids and their handsome, curly-haired pastor Skip (John Dossett), exudes the kind of irresistible good vibes that you find at interfaith ministries, yoga retreats, and all kinds of ashrams around the country. Who wouldn’t want to belong?

It would seem that Mary, the show’s main character (beautifully played by Celia Keenan-Bolger), has everything a high-school senior could want. Her cute boyfriend Dean (Aaron Tveit) is the captain of the basketball team. And her best friend is Hilary Faye (the superbly nuanced Mary Faber), the school’s most popular girl, a powered-by-prayer dynamo who befriends the ugly girl everyone else calls “Coke Bottles,” looks after her wheelchair-bound brother Roland (Curtis Holbrook, fresh from Xanadu), and makes space for the spiky Jewish bad-girl Cassandra Kirschbaum (scene-stealer Morgan Weed).

Hilary: Have you heard the good news?
Cassandra: You have cancer?
Hilary: No. Jesus loves you.
Cassandra: If Jesus really loved me, you’d have cancer.

Mary, though, is a serious Christian whose faith is tested by the church’s teachings about sex. After Dean comes out to her, she has a vision in which Jesus advises her to do everything she can to save him. But after sleeping with Dean, he’s still gay, she gets pregnant, and they both get sent to “Mercy House,” a hilarious euphemism for juvenile detention. Ultimately, of course, the veneer of inclusiveness at American Eagle High School wears off, and we see the shadow side of this homogeneous environment. And Mary realizes that the message of Jesus is that you save people by accepting and loving them, not by forcing them to change or be shunned. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Jesus (played by the same actor who plays Dean’s boyfriend) tells her. “You’re not the first person to get My message wrong.”

The high school musical is a crowded field these days, and you can tell that Saved wants to position itself somewhere between LCD crowd-pleasers like High School Musical and Altar Boyz and smarter, edgier projects like Avenue Q and Spring Awakening. Gary Griffin’s staging is solid, and Sergio Trujillo’s Hullabaloo-meets-Up With People! choreography does as much as it can on a tiny, hydraulics-driven set, including some of the snazziest, sexiest movement you’ve ever seen a wheelchair do. I was surprised how much I liked the show. Even though it has a too-easy fairy-tale ending, it’s about something real. It honestly dramatizes the search for forgiveness, redemption, and love, things that Christianity teaches (but that Christian churches don’t always practice). And it does so with the mixture of earnestness and humor that made Juno my favorite movie of the last year. 

The Advocate, July 15, 2008