Godspell occupies a strange place in my personal history in that it is a show whose soundtrack I have known intimately for such a long time, I had it on cassette as a boy, we even sang songs from it in our primary school choir, and yet I had never seen it on stage until earlier this year in a theatre pub production in Walthamstow. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that one, but when the Union Theatre announced a production directed by Michael Strassen, I decided to give it another shot. That the highlight of the previous show was the sexy gay Judas (yes, I know he wasn’t really gay) and that I happened to notice there was another sexy potentially gay Judas in this one who I’ve seen naked recently had nothing to do with it.
It is the 40th anniversary of the show, conceived by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, which is based on parables from the Bible and leading up to the end of Jesus’ life, set to a pop-rock soundtrack. I wouldn’t say it is overtly religious as much of the messages that it portrays are ones with universal meaning of love, compassion for others and the strength of community. As well as directing, Strassen is also responsible for the minimal staging which shears it of the 1970s flower-child feel which the show is often associated with, and in conjunction with Steve Miller’s lighting design, provides an arresting visual aesthetic with its use of stylised posing and shadows, and I loved the motif of the eclipsed sun which prefigured the darkness of the relationship between Jesus and Judas.
But despite looking good and sounding fine under Michael Bradley’s musical direction, the first half failed to connect. The decision to lose the hippy-chick-schtick with its clowning and over-emoting is one which works, for me at least, but the updating is mostly limited to external appearances and so a considerable portion of the acting remains much the same and no matter how earnest the performances, it can become difficult to watch. Things are exacerbated by Iain Vince-Gatt’s vocal arrangements which seem designed to showcase individuals over the company sound and thus introducing a huge amount of riffing, embellishments and general over-singing which was problematic, not least because it occasionally cruelly exposed the limitations of some of the singers.
Something clicks in the second half though and suddenly the production had me captivated pretty much through to the end. It starts off with the achingly classy Madalena Alberto’s strident take on Turn Back O’Man in which she demonstrates exactly how to take ownership of a song but the crucial difference for me was Vince-Gatt’s two best arrangements by far, which focused on the ensemble rather than the soloists. By My Side is probably one of my all-time favourite musical songs and with the gorgeous Caroline Hubbard on lead, the female company members delivered an interestingly different but still touching rendition by candlelight which was just mesmerising. The following We Beseech Thee also featured the ensemble vibrantly supporting the lead singer strongly and with a nifty dance routine to boot, leading into a hushed, stripped back On the Willows of devastating emotion.
That the finale then disappointed me was perhaps inevitable. I felt the overt representation of the crucifixion a little jarring, running counter to the overall presentation and indeed to the Director’s Note which points out the desire to unearth the universal appeal in the show. Billy Cullum’s Jesus sings well but hasn’t quite got the requisite charisma to fully convince in the more angry scenes where Davis Brooks’ Judas/John The Baptist is full of presence throughout but given a little too much to overdoing the facial expressions. Maybe it was just me but I also didn’t like the way Beautiful City was appended to the end, despite giving Alberto another chance to shine; I can see that it ostensibly suggests the resurrection but it rather interrupts the flow of the finale.
So a difficult one to call for me. I know and love this soundtrack so much that I sometimes wonder if there could ever be a production that wouldn’t disappoint me somehow as I seem to always wind up just wanting to listen to it. There’s also the fact that the Union’s run of successes means that the standard there is now so high that the level of expectation is significantly higher when it comes to musicals and so ultimately, whilst this is a brave effort with some beautiful moments within (including a brilliant in-joke for Madalena Alberto, see if you can spot it and the humour of the ‘leave it’s), this Godspell is a little bit of a disappointment.