AS “sweet rock” musicals go, “Godspell” was always rather wet, but to that director, open-air theatre pioneer Glenn Elston has added a liberal dose of corn.
The original “Godspell”, a huge hit for creators Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak in the early 1970s, is not so much reimagined as extemporised on, so that while the lyrics of the famous hits like “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and “Day by Day”, many drawn from the American episcopal hymnal, are very familiar, the show is updated with a great deal of improvisation.
The enthusiastic cast resemble for all the world a student troupe having fun with pop to folk rock, gospel, and vaudeville and indeed “Godspell” began its life as a campus production before transferring to off Broadway.
The line-up includes some very fine rock voices, notably Mark Dickinson in the opening as John the Baptist and Christopher Southall throughout as Jesus.
The simple set featured backstreet oil cans decorated with everything from the Yin-Yang symbol to the Muslim star and crescent, signifying the universal message taken from the Gospel according to St Matthew with a bit of Luke thrown in.
Embarrassing interpolations and jokes about Donald Trump, Joe Hockey, royal commissions and the like drew guffaws from segments of a simpatico audience in the smallish Playhouse at Sydney Opera House – too small for the amplification of the band, which often overpowered the excellent singing.
The voices were terrific and the acting enthusiastic, but the ad-libs and audience involvement (which worked well in the social milieu of the 70s) were cringe-making.
With a sincere and direct performance from Southall as Jesus, the real question was why they bothered to play around with it at all. A case in point was the overplayed, over-reacted-to “Beatitudes” segment. While the ensemble actors hammed it up, Southport played it straight and for a moment, it worked.
Director Glenn Elston is justly admired for his pioneering work in outdoor Shakespeare productions and it is likely that if seen outdoors the mugging and overplayed stage gags could have worked better.
This show has a very short season, but the songs are still sentimental favourites, and if you’re once a Godspell fan, maybe you still will be.