Review / ‘Godspell’ production a test of faith

Musical theatre / “Godspell”. Directed by Emma White. At The Q, Queanbeyan, November 11. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

The “Godspell” cast… “The cast work hard. Too hard. Their responses appear switched-on and mechanical.” Photo by Janelle McMenamin

BASED on the Gospel according to Matthew, “Godspell” was originally conceived towards the end of the hippie movement in the ’70s, as a school drama project.

Composer Stephen Schwartz recognised its potential and, together with John-Michael Tebelak, developed the original show into a Broadway musical, which has enjoyed considerable success ever since.

Essentially a series of parables with the passion of Christ depicted towards the end, and an infectious score by Schwartz, “Godspell” lends itself to various interpretations, depending on the imagination of the director and the talents of the cast.

Queanbeyan Players production unfortunately suffers from a surfeit of ideas and a lack of clear directorial vision, making it difficult to discern what this production is actually trying to say.

It starts off promisingly with the 10-person cast, augmented by 30-member choir, performing an impressive version of the prologue above the heads of the audience in The Q theatre foyer. The audience then filed into the theatre where director/designer, Emma White has set her production in what appears to be a city alleyway, where her op-shop costumed characters congregate.

These characters pass the time sharing parables, but so offhandedly that it’s difficult to work out why, particularly as they continually interrupt the teller with smart-ass comments and badly executed mime.

Even Jesus (Alexander Gorring) seems uninterested in, and unconvinced by, his own stories, sometimes haranguing the listeners with wildly exaggerated gestures, sometimes sending up the content. The cast work hard. Too hard. Their responses appear switched-on and mechanical. Relentlessly cheerful, they pat each other’s backs and hug, but neglect to listen and react to what is being said around them. When, in the second half, Jesus says: “Let’s form a circle”, they stand in a straight line. Elsewhere, in a hopefully unconsciously offensive communion scene, Tim Tams and Coca Cola are substituted for bread and wine, despite the dialogue describing the drink as the “juice of the vine”.

Goring looks good as Jesus. Anthony Swadling as John the Baptist and Judas, Sarah Hull, Emily Ridge, Alyce King and Kirsten Haussmann all have good opportunities, but none are vocally equipped for their solos, which were often swamped by the over-enthusiastic rock band. So much of their dialogue was lost through poor delivery and unfocused staging, and apparent technical difficulties with the lighting that resulted in their faces being totally obscured for much of the show, any efforts to create believable characterisations were defeated.

Because of the religious overtones, “Godspell” is a notoriously difficult show to bring off, demanding as it does, total sincerity and believability from each member of the cast to succeed. These qualities were missing in this production on opening night.

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