Conceived and Originally Directed by John-Michael Tebelak, Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
14th October – 6th November
Hayes Theatre, Potts Point
Images by AAA Media
In the musical theatre world, religion and religious ideals burrow their way through to reach new audiences, establish their ideals, or to be made a mockery of. Take Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, or even the sharp social commentary of Book of Mormon. Where these productions take a concrete stance on the ideals they present, either stripping the deification entirely to present visceral characters (JCS) or highlighting the absolute farce of organised religion (B.o.M), John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell feels much more at home in Sunday School.
Director Richard Carroll and Musical Director Victoria Falconer throw everything they have in their repertoire to make us have fun, hopefully forgiving the sanctimonious nature of Tebelak’s script in the process. Indeed, there are extremely fun elements of this production of Godspell. Carroll has clearly attempted to recapture the magic of Once’s instrumental prowess through amalgamating the two atmospheres of the shows.
Each actor pulls instruments as if out of thin air to play and amaze you. Some you will recognise, others will make you take the Lord’s name in vain as you gasp, “Jesus Christ!” They stand on chairs to play piano, carry a double bass as if it were as light as a small guitar, and give the most unique and entertaining exit to intermission I’ve seen in recent years. It’s safe to say that the actor-musician performers in this show have more musical talent in their pinkie then most do in their whole body. For this, the team and cast deserve all the applause. You can find a list of instruments and their players at the end of this review.
Stefanie Caccamo, Jeremi Campese, Gillian Cosgriff, Alfie Gledhill, Abe Mitchell, Chaya Ocampo, Billie Palin, Quinton Rich and Jane Watt work wonders with their vocals, ability to seemingly play any instrument given to them, and skills of improvisation. Each performer takes on their own sense of persona over a sense of character, enhanced through Angela White’s hit and miss costume design.
Godspell is fun, but if you take on the immensity of this fun, you must also bear witness to the Church session that sneaks its way through its first act and explodes in your face in the second. Christians and forgiving non-Christians alike have found solitude in Godspell since its 1976 production on Broadway. But what love it boasts through its Gospel songs and messages of love and community also carries with it a sharp ability to alienate.
The premise of the piece is based off the Gospel of Matthew with the first part of the show being a vignette of Jesus teaching his disciples the parables, whereas the second act veers swiftly into the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and his subsequent crucifixion.
If you can stomach the overly dogmatic script, this production of Godspell is a masterclass in performance.
Where Godspell alienated me personally sat in dramaturgy. Set Designer Emma White dresses the stage in a space akin to a dive bar, with neon lights, Jukebox and dance pole. It’s not clear when we are in this place of time, so instead we’re encouraged to listen to the messages of the parables with Peter Rubie’s lighting creating spaces within spaces. Purple hazes cut through over intimate solos, whereas narrow spotlights hone us in on one character. I did feel extremely sorry for Jane Watt’s standout moment on the pole, her twists and upside turns were cast completely in shadow.
Dylan Robinson’s sound design establishes the atmosphere through a complicated mix of snippets that dance through messages of voting against liberals and the end of capitalism to establish the socialist style message of community. It’s discordantly placed to access the subject matter, especially when it comes to Jesus’ death. What Carroll has utilised, however, and what is aided through Falconer’s musical direction is the sense of community, and through extension, ensemble that takes place.
It’s been said that Godspell is “one of the most progressive and innovative musicals in history”. Progressive? Maybe in the 70’s. Innovative? This production surely is. In a landscape where musicals such as A Strange Loop are making waves in the theatre world, the teachings of Godspell feel as dated as the book it’s based on. As for the ability to alienate…to put it into context, there is currently an expansive bronze bowl the size of a small church sitting in Vatican City that could nearly wipe away Africa’s debts. So, do unto others as you would have done to yourself?
If you can stomach the overly dogmatic script, this production of Godspell is a masterclass in performance. With some truly stellar, jaw-dropping feats of instrumental ingenuity, the talent on display may be worth the ticket price alone. As for me? I prefer my nights at the theatre with a lot less preaching.
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Director Richard Carroll
Musical Director Victoria Falconer
Choreographer Sally Dashwood
Set Designer Emma White
Costume Designer Angela White
Lighting Designer Peter Rubie
Sound Designer Jarrad Payne
Stage Manager Bronte Schuftan
Assistant Stage Manager Fiona Lloyd-Harding
Starring Stefanie Caccamo, Jeremi Campese, Gillian Cosgriff, Victoria Falconer, Alfie Gledhill, Abe Mitchell, Chaya Ocampo, Billie Palin, Quinton Rich, Jane Watt. Swings: Mae Li Cowell, Gus Noakes.