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'Saved' Is A Modest, Mild-mannered Little Musical

Despite its amiable demeanor, "Saved" does not offer born-again, musical-theater salvation.

This modest, mild-mannered musical satire, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, softens the cartoon contours of the cult 2004 movie on which it is based. What's worse, it doesn't provide enough compelling reasons to sing.

But then the show is basically a one-joke entertainment, spoofing the peculiarities of the students at a Christian high school. Book writers John Dempsey and Rinne Groff _ who also helped with lyrics _ push the slight story to its limit.

Their reworking of the tale of a good girl who gets pregnant after hoping to cure her devout boyfriend of being gay is stretched out with songs by Michael Friedman _ pop-lite musical numbers that only occasionally bring the show to life under Gary Griffin's sluggish direction.

A game, eager cast, headed by the sweetly appealing Celia Keenan-Bolger as Mary, the poor, pregnant student, works very hard to put across the material. In the movie, Mary's pregnancy happens quickly. Here it takes until the first-act curtain to find out the girl is going to have a baby.

In between, we are introduced to the school's other students, most prominently Hilary Faye, its most popular student and leader of the Christian Jewels girl group. She's the most zealously religious, a true believer who runs roughshod over those who don't share her determination.

In what is the show's best musical moment, Hilary Faye, played by Mary Faber, imagines a perfect world that "feels like heaven" _ and, of course, none of it is true.

There's also the pregnant girl's mother, just voted Christian interior decorator of the year, who seems to have a thing for the head of the school, Pastor Skip. Even though the man's long-absent wife is still in Africa going missionary work, it's a romance that doesn't go anywhere, wasting the considerable talents of Julia Murney and John Dossett.

What few zingers the show provides come from Morgana Weed, who portrays the tough-talking Cassandra, the school's only Jewish student. Cassandra is a lightning rod for persistent conversion attempts by Hilary Faye and her cohorts. Fortunately, the missionary work never pays off.

Scott Pask's setting _ a backdrop of colorful, brightly lighted squares _ is cheerful. So is the minimal yet charmingly athletic choreography of Sergio Trujillo. Yet even this abundance of energy radiating from a cast in perpetual motion can't make "Saved" more than fitfully entertaining.

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