The bad timing of the original off-Broadway opening of Godspell has plagued the show ever since in terms of its perceived popularity, as it was quickly eclipsed in success at the time by another biblical musical in the form of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s more commercial Jesus Christ Superstar, which followed only months later … and on Broadway.
Composed by Stephen Schwartz long before his success with Wicked, Godspell has never achieved the commercial success of JCS and, for many it has sadly had to live in its shadow, receiving fewer revivals and productions.
However, this local premiere of the 2011 Broadway revival of the piece currently being staged by one of our top ‘Youth’ companies, Ravara Productions, could give any take on JCS a run for its money.
This adventurous young company always sets the bar high, no matter what the show, and this is no exception as, under Kerry Rodgers’ impressive direction, it has managed to create an almost trademark feel and look for its show with a mix of fluorescent colours and innovative staging.
The open black-box staging offered lots of performance space to the large and energetic cast with the central scaffold structure and its mobile boxes and swings not only representing the original school playground setting of the piece but also providing a degree of height variation for the performers and a positioning grid for some lighting.
As one of musical theatre’s ultimate ensemble pieces with the majority of the cast not being given specific identities, there was an appropriately strong sense of belonging to a community in this colourful, vibrant and fresh new production.
The young cast enacted the last days of the life of Jesus in song, story and dance and related a series of parables in their own way, before going on to adopt the roles of Pharisees and disciples.
In this exploration of the different parables, each piece was devised by the performers themselves, which helped to give them ownership of the piece and – injected with lots of very strong visual humour, contemporary references and new arrangements – this show was made more attractive to today’s audiences.
Dominated by high-energy performances throughout, everyone in this show deserved praise, but some stood out for their singing or for their comic acting or for their ability to impress even with the smallest of roles in the retelling of these parables and they included, Aine Doherty, AJ McGinn, Anna Smith, Annie McIlwaine, Aoife Bennett, Claire Whitehead, Courtney Burns, Emma Dougan, Jonathan Brown, Josh Trainor, Josha Martin, Katie Killick, Katy Anderson, Lucy McIlwaine and Olivia McAleenan.
Performed without musical accompaniment, the strong opening saw the mobile phone-infested cast in colourful contemporary dress making the show more appealing and more relevant.
When the music truly kicked in for the well-known song, Prepare Ye (The Way Of The Lord), each cast member in turn touched or physically went through one of the colourful rings to symbolise the commonality of their belonging to a community.
Musically, Schwartz’s score incorporated a variety of musical styles and this revival offered nice new arrangements, which were all a doddle for the tight six-piece band positioned high above the stage, with Musical Director, Adam Darcy, even getting in on the act at one point to count in the Act 1 finale, Light of The World.
Songs like Save The People, Beautiful City and the show’s best-known song, Day By Day, all stood out, while other highlights included the impressive vocals and harmonies of both By My Side and We Beseech Thee, but, for me, the showstoppers were the well-staged finale and both the vaudeville style and staging of All For The Best, during which Rachel McAdam’s outstanding choreography (a strong part of the success of this production) and all of its other elements gelled so well.
There has always been a Superman reference to Jesus in productions of this show from the very obvious dressing of him as the comic book hero to the more subtle approach of having him wear a Superman t-shirt, but, in this production, he got to fly (well, kind of) during the Act 1 finale.
As he is heavily involved in other aspects of local musical theatre, it is so easy to forget that Matthew Campbell is also a very good performer and singer, but his very calm and controlled performance as Jesus here quickly reminded us of the fact.
I loved that the Jesus character sometimes got to join us and sit in the stalls with us as I thought it gave a whole new meaning to idea that ‘He lives amongst us’.
Despite enjoying this production and its great lighting effects, courtesy of Sandy McAlister, I did have one problem with the positioning of some lights. For, although one of the aspects of this show is about ‘seeing the light’, the lighting bars across the front of the scaffolding set needed adjusting as the almost constant light in the eyes of the audience did affect my eyesight considerably during and after the performance.
Having now seen about 15 productions of this show over the years, I thought that the brilliantly-staged finale here was easily the most moving, beautiful and powerful ending of them all.
With the passion of Jesus treated briefly near the end of this show, including The Last Supper and a sanitised, but moving, Crucifixion, there has always been a degree of controversy about why there was no inclusion of, or reference to, the Resurrection in this show.
The reason was that the aim of the show was not about the character of Jesus, but about the effect His word had on his followers and I though this theme was well captured here.
If you are not sure if this show is for you, then forget your Pre-conceived ideas and ‘Pre-pare Ye’ to be entertained, as the stars of this show are the performances and the production.
Photos: Melissa Gordon, Gorgeous Photography
Waterfront Hall Studio Theatre, Belfast
Wed 30 Aug-Sat 2 Sept