Stephen Swartz’s Godspell premiered in 1971 and since then has had numerous productions worldwide, including two major Broadway revivals. A favourite among community theatre groups and high schools, Swartz’s score for Godspell is one of the most-loved and recognisable in musical theatre and his song ‘Day by Day’ made it to number thirteen on the Billboard pop singles in 1972. Being a fan of classic rock musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar I’d always been aware of Godspell, however it wasn’t until the shows most recent Broadway revival in 2011 that I really got to know the show. With an updated score, the Broadway revival brought the show into the 21st Century and offered a Godspell that would appeal to a media saturated younger audience. As one of the only full length musicals in the Camden Fringe Festival JR Theatre has resurrected Godspell again in a new updated production showing Upstairs At The Gatehouse. In this production the audience is asked to “Forget what you think about Godspell, forget what you think about God” and as a fan of the show I was extremely excited to see how this production has been updated for 2016.
Godspell is a series of parables, mostly from The Gospel of Matthew and The Gospel of Mark. As these parables are depicted the characters come together to form a group learning from the parables with guidance given by Jesus. The parables are interspersed with a variety of modern music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns, with the passion of Christ treated briefly near the end of the performance. It’s understandable that Godpell and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar are sometimes compared and criticism is often given to Godspell for not portraying the resurrection. What’s important to note about Godpsell is that, unlike Superstar, it’s not solely a depiction of the last five days of Jesus’s life. At it’s core Godspell is about the formation of a community, how this community is effected by Jesus’ presence, what they learn and how they’re able to embody and pass on Jesus’ teachings after he’s left.
Special mention is given to Reanne Nash for her outstanding vocal on the challenging ‘Bless The Lord’, Anya Williams for her lovely ‘Beautiful City’ and Tim Stuart for his beautiful rendition of ‘All Good Gifts’, one of most touching and moving moments of the show. While each actor gave admirable performances, I felt that not enough thought or direction was given in terms of character development. As the show progresses, each character tells a parable and gets their own song. So there is plenty of room for the audience to get to know each character. I felt for the most part that the basis of direction was focused on blocking; getting actors from point A to B. This was evident when the characters said goodbye to Jesus at the end of the show. They each said goodbye in their own way, supposedly reminiscent of their relationship with Jesus, however as we didn’t get to know the characters throughout the performance I found each goodbye unrelatable.
JR Theatre’s production of Godspell was advertised as THE Godpsell for today. As the show began the cast formed onstage as if on the tube, all going about their lives as a news report was heard regarding Brexit. A great start, however soon after this the tube formation broke up and the modern world wasn’t referred to again apart from the use of two iPads in a later scene, selfie taking in another and at the very end the tube formation was formed again, creating a “and it was all a dream” ending that I found really disappointing. Knowing the show, there are lots of opportunities to use modern day politics, celebrities and fashion trends to accentuate the parables and bring the show into present day and I thought this production could have benefited hugely from utilising these missed opportunities and easily related with it’s audience.
Traditionally the show is opened with a monologue by Jesus and then the cast sing ‘Tower of Babble’. In this production ‘Tower of babble’ was spoken, meaning the audience was asked to engage with quite heavy dialogue from the beginning. John The Baptist then launches into ‘Prepare Ye’, calling for participants for the community. In this production Jesus called for these participants in a slowed down version of the song, while looking up to heaven. John the Baptist was nowhere to be seen and wasn’t credited in the programme either. So the audience have now seen Jesus’ opening monologue, a heavily worded spoken ‘Tower of Babble’ and a lethargic ‘Prepare Ye’ at the top of the show. I found this very heavy and hard to relate to at such an early point in the show. In fact, it wasn’t until ‘Learn Your Lessons Well’ that the show loosened up and I found myself having fun.
Traditionally played by a man, in this production JR Theatre have cast the wonderful Anya Williams as Jesus. I really enjoyed seeing a woman play Jesus and thought the productions treatment of Jesus’ vocal refreshing and suited to her voice. Where this casting didn’t work so well was when Judas started to doubt Jesus. Grant Urquhart’s Judas became very aggressive and the cast had to pull him of Jesus. I found this violence to be unnecessary and extremely awkward. Surely there are other ways to become aggressive without the need for threatened physical violence?
When the show was re-orchestrated for my beloved 2011 Broadway revival, the songs were re-scored with modern arrangements which reflected the exuberant production. As this production was dense and heavy, the newly scored revival versions of the songs seemed somewhat out of place and I found this to be another disconnect.
A heavy handed production of Godspell, I found only a hint of joy and exuberance as the characters discovered the teachings of Jesus. Instead of teacher and friend, they seemed to accept Jesus as the messiah from the get-go which created a divide between Jesus and the rest of the cast. This production was packed with ideas that didn’t really grow into fruition and characters I found hard to relate to. However, it was wonderful to see this show on stage again and I saw some wonderful moments and performances.
Reviewed by Stuart James
GODSPELL plays Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 24 August 2016