Godspell is a musical about Jesus Christ teaching the word of God to a bunch of enthusiastic youths. But this Jesus? He’s ‘hip’. He’s ‘cool’. You may be able to tell that it’s not my favourite musical. It was an interesting choice for Newman to produce, as what seemed radical and refreshing in 1971 comes across as a bit cheesy today. Nonetheless, director Ryan Bentley worked hard to make it entertaining.
The simple black set was effective and easily adaptable, able to create a house or cross or the last supper table in a moment, and its contrast with the bright costumes only further emphasised the energy of the performers. Set designer Lane Hyde’s ideas kept in mind form and function, which is ideal for a show filled with storytelling.
A few imaginative directorial choices really enhanced the production, including Jesus entering unexpectedly through the audience and the use of a bright yellow stamp to designate the faithful. Bentley’s instinct to take a comedic tone with much of the material was smart too, as it can easily become too cloying in the wrong hands. The decision to stage the parable of the Good Samaritan as shadow puppetry (combined with real puppetry) was frankly inspired, and very original.
My compliments must go to the band – all of whom were talented musicians working in tandem and clearly enjoying themselves, which is wonderful when they are visible on stage for the entire show. Unfortunately, the band was usually tighter than the vocals. There were multiple instances of the ensemble cast being pitchy and weak in projection. I also found it difficult to understand lyrics at times, and diction is particularly important in a show that features so many parables and lessons. Musical director James McKinnon would do well to provide more vocal support in future, as he clearly already has a strong grasp of orchestration.
The lead role of Jesus was handled confidently by Eamon Dooley. Softly spoken but with quiet confidence, Dooley gave a performance with subtlety and conviction. His voice was also lovely, with a warm tone that was appropriately soothing. Dooley was fully capable of embodying the young, cool substitite teacher (who you would even call a dreamboat if he weren’t so gosh darn earnest) that the production demands. I was also impressed at how his intensity rose during the crucifixion, arms shaking and face in agony. The final tableau of Jesus on the cross, surrounded by his disciples, was absolutely stunning. Judas (Sarah Parkin) had an incredible voice. Upon entering, her vocal clarity and crisp tone cut through the air beautifully. But she seemed to struggle with the shift towards betrayal, choosing to emphasise her own sadness to the extent that I found it hard to believe she would ever abandon Jesus willingly. Nonetheless, the cast’s acting and energy were a real highlight of the show, and their enthusiasm was palpable, especially during the bigger numbers. Aaron Bhat, Matthew Healy and Hannah Armstrong were standouts for me, giving every moment their all but still conveying a range and variety of emotions.
The lighting was quite dark considering the highly colourful clothing, and to only sometimes be able to see that brightness did something of a disservice to Alexandra Runge’s costumes. There was also a definite need for more face light throughout, particulary downstage. However, the sound mixing was excellent, as the production team found a solid solution to the problems of staging a musical in the Guild by using a combination of head and handheld mics.
It is difficult to make a show like this feel relevant, with no scene better typifying the challenge than the incisive use of a Trump impression to depict a selfish, unfeeling rich man – a choice with political bite – followed immediately by a Borat impression – which really required very little thought at all. The show’s core lesson, too, that if you are good and kind, everything will work out for the best, rings a little hollow today. Despite this, Newman produced an energetic, funny and colourful piece of theatre that worked hard to give its audience a good night out.
Newman Theatre Society’s production of Godspell ran from the 10th – 13th of August in the Guild Theatre.