Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: John-Michael Tebelak
Director & Choreography: Brendan Matthew
This musical favourite has been a regular production across theatres around the world since it first launched in 1971. Following in the vein of rock-based shows of the time like Hair and Joseph, Godspell is a musical telling of the final days of Christ’s life through a series of parables primarily based on the gospel of St Matthew. Often compared to Jesus Christ, Superstar, which was originally released in the same year and tells the same story, it differs fundamentally through its narrative approach.
Where Superstar interprets Christ’s final days, in Godspell the narrative is split into a series of vignettes centred around Jesus (Alex White) sharing his teachings with a disparate group of lost souls, introduced by John the Baptist (Josh Hanley) hoping to build ‘the beautiful city’.
Each parable is told, back-to-back, in two forms. As Jesus tells each story, it’s acted out, pantomime-like, by his followers and then re-presented in song. And it is this dual telling that is at the crux of what fails the production. The musical elements work very well, but the acted parts fail to meet expectation.
The big issue with Godspell is the underlying story. The various scenes are disjointed and there’s no clear narrative structure. Above all the ‘acted’ parts are presented in a manner that flits between frat party foolishness and school play amateurishness. It’s verging on shambolic and at times embarrassing. Part of this could be down to directorial decisions, but it’s the underlying text that seems to be causing the issues.
The stories are focused on Jesus and John trying to teach their followers a better way to live. Josh Hanley, as John (and later Judas), shines amongst the cast, delivering a balance between teacher and pupil as John and a dark brooding as Judas. Alex White fairs less well as Jesus. His performance, whilst assured, lacks authority. He has the earnest petulance that you might expect for a 26-year-old who believes he has the key to salvation, but a few well-placed pauses and a slower delivery would go a long to giving his performance more impact.
The real star of the show is the music. Anyone familiar with the Broadway cast recording, will be surprised at the depth and richness that the songs have under Benjamin Levy’s musical direction. Whilst the choreography is questionable in some places and some of the solo performances don’t quite hit the mark, the group singing is a real delight. As an ensemble, the cast is powerful, harmonised, and soulful. These musical numbers deliver more emotion, more narrative and more engagement than any of the acted scenes.
Whist the show’s most famous number is Day By Day, it’s By My Side, hauntingly sung by Kimberley Ensor, that steals the show.
Godspell is a flawed show. The cast enthusiastically delivers solid performances all round but cannot cover for the lack of narrative clarity and some ill-chosen interpretations of scenes. Fortunately, though, the musical half of the show more than makes up for this and, while you may come out somewhat bit bemused, you’ll feel well entertained.
Runs until 10 October 2021