Before Stephen Schwartz became a household name with Wicked, he composed music and lyrics inspired by John Michael Tebalek’s thesis, which formed the libretto for Godspell. Loosely based on the gospel of Matthew, it was initially performed off-Broadway in 1971.
It has been 14 years since Adelaide audiences have been treated to Schwartz’s inaugural musical, and this limited season is co-produced by Irregular Productions and Lydian Productions.
The Parks Theatre suited the immersive in-the-round approach of director Karen Sheldon. Having a community garden as the setting for her play, Sheldon’s aim was to extend the sense of community into the audience. The theatre was inviting, and the absence of a curtain blurred the lines between stage and audience. The fourth wall was abandoned and much activity was taking place on stage as patrons entered.
Godspell’s score is rich in texture, harmony, and polyrhythmic devices. The text is laden with metaphors and parables, and it is the kind of libretto that runs the risk of alienating an audience who are unfamiliar with its biblical references.
Fortunately, musical director Martin Cheney’s treatment of the 2012 orchestral and vocal arrangements was captivating and has played to the strengths of each performer. The ensemble convincingly delivered close harmonies in multiple parts, and at times a capella. Their unified sound was delightful and the ten performers achieved an impressive blend collectively.
Each cast member was given a chance to feature. These included beat-boxing, narration, and comedic routines which reiterated the sense of community that Sheldon intended. The choreography by Kerry-Lynne Hauber made use of the various levels in the theatre and allowed performers to move naturally in the space.
Mark Oates as Jesus Christ showcased effortless vocal agility and exuded a nurturing paternal charm that was necessary in this modern depiction of Christ. Another notable performer was Josh Angeles as John the Baptist / Judas. Angeles’ stage presence and conviction as a singer and actor were commanding and commendable.
Cheney’s five-piece band supported the singers well and the orchestra was uniquely positioned along the perimeter of the auditorium, enveloping the audience. David Lampard created a warm urban New York vibe, but some of the references to philosophers and literary icons seemed too explicit. Lighting design by Brad Sax was tasteful and complemented the colourful costumes and sets whilst supporting the mood of the songs. Jamie Mensforth’s audio design created a balanced mix between cast and orchestra.
A talented cast delivered an entertaining night at the theatre, and the vibrant performances made the audience laugh with some patrons taking part in a number of scenes. However, the limited exposition made the characters’ relationships unclear. Immediately, the audience was thrust into a community garden with a group of random people whose characters were not established. It was somewhat confusing how they found themselves there. Nevertheless, they decided to play games with one another and argue about life’s deeper questions. This is a show for fans of Schwartz and lovers of gospel rock laced with intricate vocal harmonies.