With both tragic and triumphant results, teen pregnancy has pushed its way beyond depressing news statistics and into popular culture: in Broadway’s Spring Awakening, Wendla’s unplanned pregnancy puts her on a catastrophic path, while in the sunnier movie Juno, the title character gamely faces her pregnancy armed with sharp wit and a hipster soundtrack. And it seems that nobody is immune from problematic conception. The 2004 film Saved! threw a pregnant teenager into the least welcoming environment imaginable: a fundamentalist Christian high school. A good-natured spoof on the idiosyncrasies of organized religion, Saved has now been resurrected as an honest-to-goodness, singing, dancing musical. With its flashy design, spirited cast, and kicky choreography, it’s a wonder the title lost its exclamation point somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, it also lost much of the gleeful, goofy spoofiness that made it such a cult favorite.
Many of the characters in Saved have extremely good intentions. When, at the beginning of their senior year, Mary’s longtime boyfriend Dean confides in her that he thinks he’s gay, she decides to consummate their relationship in order to “save” him, taking sage advice from Jesus—of course!—who appears to her in a vision. The shared intimacy doesn’t do the trick, however, as Mary’s pious BFF Hillary Faye catches wind of the secret and alerts the school. Dean is shipped away to a detention center called Mercy House to be cured of his “faggotry"; Mary winds up pregnant, alienated from her straight-and-narrow popular friends and smothered in baggy K-mart clothing.
As far as committed Christians go, and as played by the wistful, plaintive Celia Keenan-Bolger, Mary is as devout as they come—she’s part of a praise-happy vocal trio called the “Christian Jewels” and a regular member of “P-Group” (translation: prayer group). But when she steps outside of her comfort zone, Mary finds acceptance with the school’s outsiders: Cassandra, a rebel Jewish transfer student, and Roland, Hillary Faye’s younger, wheelchair-bound, and avowedly atheist brother. In addition to these and other assorted teenage dramas, the plot folds in a blossoming yet forbidden romance between Mary’s widowed mother, Lillian, and the school’s unhappily married principal, Pastor Skip.
At two and a half hours, Saved attempts to cover a lot of ground, but ultimately loses its focus. Slipping back and forth across the line between spoof and sincerity, it’s sometimes hard to know whether you’re being preached at or performed to.
Still, the comedy, often derived from the exaggerated behavior of the overtly religious, frequently hits its mark. Lines like “We’re psyched for His arrival!” and “Can’t you get with the Lord?” craftily wed Christian rhetoric with trendy teen-speak. And the devious Hillary Faye, played to pert perfection by the charismatic Mary Faber, is a walking fountain of hypocrisy and righteousness—she immediately dubs newcomer Cassandra “a good get for God,” and her blithe, deluded fantasy of “Heaven” is one of the show's strongest musical moments.
But these tart scenarios lose their zing when mired in the rest of the middling material. The music is particularly disappointing. Written by the prodigious Michael Friedman (who pens magnificent, witty material for the renegade theater troupe The Civilians), this score rarely coheres into anything catchy or memorable. Perhaps aiming to fit the material, it settles into the realm of the pseudo, and the resulting songs lack a distinctive personality: we’re stuck with pseudo rock, pseudo rap, and pseudo musical theater. Even the lyrics lack energy: one particular phrase rhymes “screwy” with “life buoy.” Silly? Yes. Spoofy? Maybe. But within this confused show, it’s hard to separate intentional, ironic “bad” writing from just plain bad writing.
Perhaps if it were focused and trimmed to 90 minutes, the show could find a more resonant core. The talent is certainly there: designers Scott Pask (set) and Donald Holder (lights) have created a dazzling back wall covered in a panel of lights, cross-cut into squares to evoke stained-glass windows; Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys) has given the girl trio some snappy moves; and the young cast is armed with fistfuls of energy. Veteran performers John Dossett and Julia Murney are wasted in the grown-up roles, but they valiantly struggle to hold up their wispy storyline.
As Mary’s mother, Murney delivers one of the more poignant, “real” messages about religion—in short, that it’s more important to have faith than to follow a strict list of rules. Although Saved often eerily echoes the damaging repression constricting the nineteenth-century teenagers in Spring Awakening, Lillian’s redemptive words would never be offered by Wendla’s unforgiving mother. Repression may always be part of our culture, but here, at least, we are presented with more than one way to be Saved.