DreamSong was presented as part of the Arts Centre’s Carnegie18 New Music Theatre Series, and was essentially a moved reading. Director Michael Gurr prefaced the performance by saying that we were seeing an abridged version of a much longer piece.
The program states “DreamSong is a show about the way faith cultivates desire rather than fulfills it”, using the American megachurches as its focus. Where The Book Of Mormon took the mickey out of Mormons, DreamSong aims to do the same to large American Christian churches.
The opening number is excellent. It sets the scene of the church and the main characters (Pastor Richard Sunday, his second wife Whitney Sunday and their daughter April Sunday), drawing on many typical TV preacher cliches. The music is arena rock based — with nods to Jesus Christ Superstar and Jim Steinman — and very much in the “megachurch musical style”. The storyline is swiftly set up when Neville (well played by Nelson Gardner) tells Ps Sunday (John O’May) that the church needs money and that only Jesus could save them. Telling Neville that his idea is perfect, they decide to stage the second coming of Jesus Christ to draw in the funds needed to stay afloat.
This is where things begin to go awry, not just in the story, but also in the construct of the musical. First things first, the story concept is a brilliant one; open to humour, pathos and a satirical look at the whole megachurch phenomenon. The problem is, the characters aren’t always three-dimensional or even likable: the cliches never quite give way to any real character depth or heart. Only April (performed with sensitivity by Stefanie Jones) is someone we can believe, but by the end of the show, even she resigns herself to just following along with everyone else, to “forgive, forget and be redeemed”. As an audience member, I wanted to like someone, but by the end, there was no-one to truly identify with.
Writers Hugo Chiarella and Robert Tripolino went on to say that they thought they had handled the subject matter with sensitivity. Unfortunately, I don’t feel they have. Although there are moments of excellent comedic writing, the songs are well-written and mostly well performed, I believe they’ve missed the mark in some cases. At times the writing crosses the line from dark satirical humor to being overtly offensive. It’s fine to throw questions and hold up a mirror to something, as long as you have some answers for it too.
However, as with all Carnegie18 pieces, DreamSong a work-in-progress. There is some merit here. The team of Chiarella and Tripolino are a great creative team, and they obviously have a great idea for a musical. The key now is it to bring out what they really want the audience to understand: how hypocrisy, power and religion can corrupt even those at the top.