Tag Archives: Stephen Schwartz

Godspell

Godspell in Concert
★★

Cadogan Hall

Godspell

Godspell in Concert

Cadogan Hall

Reviewed – 29th June 2019

★★

 

“The youthful bias offered the huge plus point that the show was bursting with energy”

 

Godspell is a 1971 musical written by Stephen Schwartz. Based on a series of Bible parables, it has been revived countless times and seen by millions. A successful film version emerged in 1973, the same year that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar also hit cinemas. Directed by Dean Johnson, this semi-staged version by the British Theatre Academy saw those popular songs performed by a huge ensemble of teenagers (representing a community of disciples) and a handful of West End and TV star guest singers. Their renditions were interspersed with scenes of the younger folk partially acting out the teachings of Jesus.

The youthful bias offered the huge plus point that the show was bursting with energy. But on the downside, some of the vocals were better than others and the sound was at times painfully shrill. There was no set to speak of, but visual interest came from the bright neon technicolour clothing (Day-Glo tops, tie-dyed T-shirts, rainbow-striped leggings) and sparkling accessories. A five-piece band (coordinated by musical director James Taylor) played with gutsy efficiency, but the sound was fairly muddy from where I sat (eight rows back).

Although the songwriting and the overall concept retained a very dated early-1970s feel, there were admirable attempts to modernise the material. For example, it was a nice touch that the show began with seven of the performers wielding mobile phones, texting and scrolling as they debated religious philosophy. A less successful contemporary element was the moment in which, if I’m not mistaken, a Donald Trump impersonator was condemned to Hell by a group of Mexicans he had wronged.

Jesus was surely one of the most charismatic men who ever lived. It’s difficult to reconcile that image with Luke Bayer’s slightly underwhelming figure reading out his lines from an iPad. There must have been an awful lot of lines to learn, it’s true, but you’d expect these words to emerge from deep within his soul rather than be cued by an interchangeable gadget anyone has access to. It eroded any sense of the commanding presence such a figure would exude.

The production also suffered from the lack of a narrative arc or any real emotional complexity. Despite ending with the crucifixion (and controversially not the resurrection), the bulk of the ‘story’ is just a series of simplistic preachings – lively, unrelated episodes that could have been delivered in any order without changing the overall effect. And the much-needed flashes of wit (a parable rendered as interpretative dance, children pretending to be goats and sheep) are little more than temporary diversions from an unrelenting sequence of moral lessons. How much you can take away from those lessons is a personal matter, of course, depending on your theological stance. But if you know the teaching of Jesus already, do you really need to hear them presented this way? And if you aren’t aware of them, is a loud rock/gospel musical the best way to take on board that guidance? Beyond the hordes of clearly delighted parents in the hall (enhancing the feel of a well-presented school play), I wasn’t sure who this show was intended for. Christians might consider it too flippant and irreverent. And non-Christians are unlikely to have the patience to sit through so much of the New Testament, however catchy songs such as ‘Day by Day’ might be. In 2019, religion is a divisive, often contentious business, so a more nuanced treatment of the topic would have been welcome.

The best parts were when they kept it low-key and immediate. When one of the performers rapped over a rhythm built from the ensemble’s perfectly coordinated claps and foot stomps, there were a few seconds of real dynamism. And there was an endearing interlude in which a member of the audience was brought on to the stage without warning, handed his lines on a prompt card and made to play the part of Lazarus.

No one can deny the sincerity and goodwill behind the production, nor the obvious vitality of the cast, but Godspell came across as a wearyingly one-dimensional affair. Sadly, it was very much a case of preaching to the converted.

Reviewed by Stephen Fall

 


Godspell in Concert

Cadogan Hall

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:
At Last: The Etta James Story | ★★★★ | October 2018
All You Need Is Love | ★★★★ | April 2019

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com

 

Pippin – 4 Stars

Pippin

Pippin

Southwark Playhouse

Reviewed – 28th February 2018

★★★★

“Tessa Kadler … nails the comedy but melts the heart with the purity of her singing voice”

 

Written in 1972, “Pippin” uses the ‘play within a play’ concept to recount the story of Pippin, a young prince on his search for meaning and significance in his life. The fourth wall is broken from the outset in what is quite a stunning opening as the players, lead by the formidable Genevieve Nicole as ringmaster-cum-emcee, launch into the prologue number, ‘Magic To Do’.

Jonathan Boyle’s upbeat production at Southwark Playhouse lives up to this promise. Most of the time. That is no mean feat, as in less able hands this show could so easily fall apart under the weaknesses of the book. The story is derived from the real life medieval characters; ‘Pepin’ and his father ‘Charlemagne’, although there is no historical accuracy beyond the use of the names. Charting Pippin’s rite of passage the narration purposefully feels improvised, but the technique grates after a while and any intended poignancy is lost in the confusion.

On his quest for fulfilment, Pippin joins the army fighting for his father, but then leads a political rebellion against him and usurps the throne. Still unfulfilled he flees to the country and sets up home with a widow and her son. But he is still unsatisfied. One could share Pippin’s frustration if this haphazardly lazy fable wasn’t rescued by Stephen Schwartz’s score. What Schwartz brings to the stage is fresh and modern but also recognisable in its influences, tipping his hat to Gilbert and Sullivan, Bernstein, Kander and Ebb, Motown, and adding his own pop sensibilities. William Whelton’s masterful choreography is unmistakable in its homage to Bob Fosse who choreographed and directed the original Broadway production.

Jonathan Carlton’s Pippin is part ‘boy band’ and ‘boy-next-door’, a charming mix that fits the role, but the show stealer is Tessa Kadler as the widow, Catherine, who nails the comedy but melts the heart with the purity of her singing voice.

But overall the initial promise of magic isn’t quite sustained. The comedy doesn’t always work: there is a feeling of trying too hard which is disengaging and which conflicts with the absurdity of the piece. The company should embrace the nonsense, or dispense with the plot entirely. The sideshow quality of Maeve Black’s design adds a touch of seediness and sexiness and Aaron J. Dootson’s lighting is spot on ‘Cabaret’. As a revue this would be the perfect show. The all singing, all dancing cast are faultless and with the eight piece band led by musical director, Zach Flis, it is a quite spectacular evening.

Just as Schwartz’s lyrics proclaim, the committed cast do perform magic. It is quite a conjuring trick to bring to life Roger O. Hirson’s flimsy text. The music has soul, but the story lacks heart.

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Pamela Raith

 


Pippin

Southwark Playhouse until 24th March

 

 

Click here to see more of our latest reviews on thespyinthestalls.com