Theatre about Jesus can be tricky to pull off, a fine line danced between being too preachy on one side and being too irreverent on the other. Godspell is one of the more successful shows to have danced that line. Starting as a student production in 1971, it made the leap to Broadway shortly after and became a global phenomenon, spawning among other things a couple of chart-busting singles and a movie featuring Jesus in a superman T-shirt and clown makeup.
The latest incarnation, dubbed Godspell Reimagined, promises a new approach, undertaking the mildly daunting task of modernising a quintessentially seventies rock opera based on ancient scripture. It is a quaint piece, deeply embedded in religion but fighting hard to be fun at the same time. There’s no narrative, at least not to start with, with the first act comprising a series of set pieces enacting Bible stories. Jesus is the only strongly identifiable character, though various Bible bit-players, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, put in a showing.
While the dialogue is heavy with the thees and thous of Gospel, it’s all presented with a kind of vaudeville sensibility. Parables are played like pantomimes, with gaudy costumes, big accents, Dad puns, pop culture gags and even cartoonish use of a slide whistle. Jesus is the most grounded element but even he puts on a silly hat for one number. The overall feeling is like watching a group of students on Church camp performing a revue in which they have fun with Bible stories (without making *too* much fun of them.)
The big drawcard of course is the music, featuring an early score from Stephen Schwartz of Wicked fame. Even if the show’s aesthetic adopts the trappings of amateur theatre, the singing is highly professional. There are power vocals from Mark Dickinson and Bonnie Anderson (former and indeed first star of Australia’s Got Talent) and the supremely versatile Louisa Fitzhardinge brings a glowing joy to everything she does onstage. Christopher Southall gives a gentle and very human performance as Jesus, eschewing “saviour” tropes and making the Bible lessons seem less didactic and more like a sharing of ideas among friends.
While the underlying message of love and community as the most important aspects of religion are consistent, the spiritually-minded songs – many of which take their lyrics from Episcopal hymns – don’t ever quite gel with the clownery that comes between them. The second act, which addresses Jesus’ last days, culminating in (spoiler alert, I guess?) the crucifixion, is also a stark change of style from everything that’s gone before.
Still, throughout the show the audience is appreciative and lively. Really really lively. At times it feels like I’ve teleported into a revival meeting. Clearly Godspell has an enthusiastic fanbase and this production of it gives them what they want: upbeat talented cast, well rendered songs and a playful but earnest approach which feels true to the spirit of the original. There is also a guest appearance from Colleen Hewett, a member of the original Australian cast and responsible for one of the aforementioned chart-busting singles, and the applause she is greeted with is nothing short of rapturous.
For those who aren’t already Godspell fans, mileage from this new production may vary. For all the attempts to modernise it, it does still feel very of its era, and, despite a set design which incorporates iconography from a host of world religions, there is no distracting from the fact that it places the Christian ethos front and centre. It is basically the Bible presented with jazzy hands. That may be exactly your thing, or it may emphatically not be, and on that may hinge whether you love Godspell Reimagined or come away impressed by the singing but otherwise slightly baffled by what just happened.
Arts Centre Melbourne, Boldjack International and The Australian Shakespeare Company presents
Directed by Glenn Elston
Venue: Fairfax Studio | Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: 25 October – 6 November 2016
Bookings:www.artscentremelbourne.com.au | 1300 182 183