THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
By Stephen Schwartz
Hackney Empire London and on National Tour
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell. April 05, 2015
If you staggered along with a flower in your hair to Godspell at The Roundhouse back in '71 (it starred David Essex and Jeremy Irons) you'll be in for a shock with this pumped up make-over, which re-imagines it for the X Factor age.
Since Wicked, composer Stephen Schwartz's career has undergone a phenomenal transformation, which has rekindled interest in his glorious back catalogue. Godspell and Pippin confirmed his place among the greats of Broadway, but with a book adapted from the St Matthew Gospel and Episcopal hymns, this particular musical has always been a hard sell. It also seems to have suffered the ravages of much theatrical re-interpretation and one wonders if part of the reason for this was the early demise in 1985 of the book's writer John-Michael Tebelak, who might have defended it. He had conceived and directed it for his Masters thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970 and, while alive, he oversaw the numerous revivals and the movie version.
Originally what defined it was how its Christian message sat so easily with the hippie counterculture of the time. Since then interpretations have veered into the treacly piety of 'Up With People' but the piece is what it is. It was true to its era and directors need to respect that and not fight it. Would you update The Sound of Music to make it "relevant"? Here, Kenneth Avery-Clark has re-vamped it for a contemporary youth demographic, playing up the shtick and losing the piece's soul. What we're served is a cross between a hysterical panto and Saturday morning teen TV. The (very) broad comic acting style resembles a school play and this doesn't sit easily with its urban hipster aesthetic. Beanies and trainers and breakdance, topped off with gimmicks like selfie-sticks and digs at Jeremy Clarkson and Gordon Ramsey all strain for 'relevance'. All this certainly speaks down to its intended audience. Whether they'll appreciate the gesture remains to be seen.
Avery-Clark misses a key point, that this is a classic ensemble show and not a collection of star turns. The 'look-at-me' vamping from the soloists might be encouraged on X Factor or The Voice but here it is out of place – the antithesis of Ensemble. The musical highlights need to be earned but not enough attention is paid to what happens in between them. The pumped-up arrangements may give it a stadium feel, but too often the lyrics get lost, drowned out by screechy choruses. Arrangements of the up-tempo numbers are all of a piece and lack any real color or shading.
Use of handmics actually distances the audience further and one wonders why they just didn't go all out for a full concert staging and dispense with the challenges of the book. It already has the steel scaffolding and onstage band and choir. This vocally talented cast including popular recording artist and X Factor runner up Andy Abraham and The Voice finalist Leanne Jarvis could certainly do justice to such an approach.
Tom Senior, as Jesus, ticks all the leading man boxes in terms of voice, looks and stage charisma and in 'Beautiful City', where it's just him and a piano, he really connects for the first time with the material. Dominique Planter does the same in a beautifully plaintive 'By My Side'.
To beef up the cast the producers have had the very admirable idea of engaging a local choir in each of the 28 towns and cities they will visit.Tickets: www.godspellinconcert.com