Godspell Online in Concert
Online via Hope Mill Theatre
Reviewed – 26th August 2020
“The music speaks for itself, the lyrics speak for everyone, and the singers’ voices speak of the future for our industry. If this concert is anything to go by, it looks bright.”
Fifty years ago, “Godspell” made its Off-Broadway debut as a play with music: a retelling of the Gospel of Matthew set in modern-day New York City. The writer, John-Michael Telebek, was inspired by the lack of drama, conflict and resolution in the conventional religious services he witnessed at the time. Congregations were bored. His aim was to create a religious experience that would be theatrical, and that would ‘move’ people. An entertaining way to approach a serious subject matter. It was to be another year before Stephen Schwartz’s music was introduced into the show and the barriers between music and religion were being torn down. Even so, it is a piece of work that constantly needs updating and revitalising for it to remain relevant or interesting to audiences of today.
This fiftieth anniversary ‘concert’ production, directed by Michael Strassen has completely done away with Telebek’s text, leaving just the magic of Schwartz’s score to spread the message. A necessary ploy for the purposes of this production but one that is truly satisfying and refreshing. It is a far cry from being a ‘live’ experience, but what is communicated to the audience is the joy of the performers and their spell-binding performances. Although filmed and pieced together from the cast’s own homes, the sense of community inherent in the material manages to break through the screen.
The song cycle loosely retells a series of parables from the New Testament that lead up to the crucifixion of Christ. Despite all the undercurrents, it is a driving message of hope for a brighter future, made all the more relevant by cleverly splicing images of our world in lockdown into the final frames of the broadcast. Stephen Schwartz himself provides a poignant introduction to the concert; paraphrasing a couple of the central questions that the musical asks: “will we tear ourselves apart? Or can we come together as a global community?” It is a heartfelt opening with nothing whatsoever mawkish about the sentiment. We are then asked to ‘enjoy the show’.
And enjoy it we certainly do, even if the thought of another online event is starting to irritate that itch to get back to live theatre. The host of leading lights from Musical Theatre, under George Carter’s musical direction, give wonderfully fresh and novel interpretations of the numbers; from Jenny Fitzpatrick’s a Capella opening verses of “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” through to the finale. It does come across at times as an extended music video, but it is a delightful journey as we are steered through the songbook. One of the highlights has to be Ruthie Henshall’s risqué routine during “Turn Back O Man” which puts a whole new spin on performing “within a bubble”. Lucy Williamson and Shekinah McFarlane team together for an entrancing “By My Side”. Darren Day gives a wonderful turn as Jesus in “Alas for You”, evoking an underlying anger at injustice that hasn’t really changed since biblical times. Danyl Johnson’s spirited “Light of the World” oozes optimism, but the true spine-tingling moment comes as a kind of encore, after the finale. During “Beautiful City” Jodie Steele’s crystal voice emerges from a bruised soul, clinging to a hope that she wants to impart on us all. “You can give up bitter and battered, or you can slowly start to build.” “Yes, we can”, the chorus responds.
Irrespective of the intrinsic religious messages, this anniversary concert carries its own message. A message made much clearer by the sheer talent of the voices delivering it. The music speaks for itself, the lyrics speak for everyone, and the singers’ voices speak of the future for our industry. If this concert is anything to go by, it looks bright.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Godspell Online in Concert
Online until 29th August via Hope Mill Theatre
Previously reviewed by Jonathan: