Writer: John-Michael Tebelak
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director: Robert J Stanex
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
First performed in the early 1970s, this musical based on the Gospel of Matthew has become somewhat overshadowed in public perceptions by the Rice/Lloyd Webber Biblical musicals. The prospect of seeing a dated show revived by an amateur company is not normally something to set the juices flowing but, happily, this production confounds expectations on every level. Mainly this is due to the radical idea of setting it on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral (little more than a stone’s throw from this theatre) during the Occupy London demonstrations over the Winter months of 2011/12.
This new context may not be a perfect match with the show in all respects, but it enriches it with modern relevance and many delicious ironies. We see Jesus Christ as leader of a group which is challenging the Church that was founded in his name. At the time of the events, the Church was thrown into turmoil over whether its priority should have been supporting the poor and downtrodden or defending public order and its own property; this production resurrects that debate, coming down strongly in sympathy with the demonstrators. Ultimately, the constraints of the show limit the extent to which such issues can be emphasised, but they are always there as strong underlying themes.
The evening begins with the set occupied by black-suited City traders who look as if they could have drifted in from one of the neighbouring bars. Gradually they are replaced by a more colourful group of demonstrators, waving their banners and the stage is strewn with garbage bins, leaflets, tents and, to stress the theme of capitalist excess, a giant monopoly board.
The songs have worn surprisingly well; Day By Day is the best known, but Stephen Schwartz has adapted his lyrics and Beautiful City works particularly well in this setting. Performed with the accompaniment of a small rock band, the songs provide all the show’s high points. Godspell may have fallen out of favour because, unlike the other Biblical musicals from the same era, it is not sung through and, between musical numbers, the script often comes across like a very dreary sermon. This is a big obstacle for any director to overcome and Robert J Stanex has chosen to tackle it by harnessing the vitality and enthusiasm of his young cast to provide constant movement which distracts from some of the dullest patches. On the second night, there were a few breaks in continuity in the later stages, but, hopefully, these will be rectified as the run progresses.
To have any chance of working, Godspell needs above all else to have a charismatic Jesus and Joe Penny proves well able to deliver. Skateboarding, skipping, hula-hooping and performing conjuring tricks, he leads the show with remarkable energy and his singing voice also has a pleasing tone. Dan Geller doubles as John and Judas. Many of the best performed songs are by the chorus, which harmonises well, but there are also a couple of knockout individual numbers from the supporting ensemble.
To add a final irony, this production is from Sedos, a company founded by the Stock Exchange, the institution which is housed adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral and was itself a prime target of the Occupy London demonstrators.