GODSPELL by Stephen Schwartz
Musical Youth Company of Oxford (MYCO)
Oxford Playhouse, 11-12 Beaumont Street, Oxford, OX1 2LW
4-7 April 2018
Godspell is, in the words of MYCO director and choreographer Guy Brigg, 'chock full of iconic songs and toe-tapping tunes', and the talented youngsters of this amateur group with professional standards did full justice to the song and dance numbers. Perhaps the best-known songs are Day By Day and Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.
The original Godspell was set in a circus with the character of Jesus played as a clown. In MYCO's production, the location moves to a post-apocalyptic dystopian city whose setting and characters reminded me of Walter Hill's 1979 movie The Warriors. The change was certainly for the better.
There is always a challenge in staging any play or film with Jesus, as he is an unplayable character. Any attempt to play him with the emotions and foibles of a mere mortal inevitably diminishes him. This was the conundrum that Franco Zeffirelli discovered when filming Jesus of Nazareth. Actor Robert Powell, who played Christ, recounts that they made a decision that he should be played without any characterisation at all, as far as possible; that the words would simply be delivered, and the audience would then project on to Powell their own image of Christ. The ruse worked in spades. Godspell suffers from the same problem. As a clown, the figure of Jesus was trivialised. In the present production, Jesus (Zakkai Goriely) is played as a rather soppy youngster prone to hissy fits when his disciples don't 'get it'.
It's probably best to get my other quibbles with this production out of the way now, so we can get on to the aspects of the show that merit praise (and there were plenty of those). First, cross casting no longer shocks, in fact it's rather 'last month'. Nevertheless, there should be a dramatic justification for it. The director doing it 'because he can' isn't good enough. John the Baptist (or Jay TeeBee) was played by a female performer (Ellie Grieve), but with no explanation why and no immediately obvious reason. Ellie sang brilliantly, her clear tones ringing out Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord, but, to use a rather tired biblical metaphor, hers was the voice of an angel, not that of a prophet. Second, the original show courted some controversy by not having a Resurrection. In MYCO's production, Jesus does appear to rise from the dead, appearing for the finale dressed in white, but...accompanied by Jay TeeBee, also in white. The director's programme notes gave no clue as to the rationale behind that decision, neither did they mention why Judas (a wonderfully weasily and cynical Isaac Jackson) does not hang himself and is in fact forgiven by Jesus. Given that this show touts itself as based on the Gospels, a playing against the original text, so to speak, in such a significantly symbolic way, demands more than silence.
Whatever plot and casting reservations the present reviewer may harbour, the ability of the cast to deliver powerful song and dance numbers is not in doubt, and the audience was intensely appreciative of the sheer vocal and physical talent on display on stage. MYCO adapted a piece originally intended for ten performers into a show with five times that number on stage. The mere size of the on-stage numbers impressed, even overwhelmed, but in a good way. Congratulations are due to choreographer Guy Brigg and assistant choreographer and dance captain Eleanor O'Connor for designing and co-ordinating such complex routines that were slick, polished and intoxicating. Praise also to musical director Julie Todd for drawing out of the cast of teenagers some extraordinary vocal performances.
The show was set in a scrapyard-cum-urban wasteland and was meant to symbolise the disaffection and chaos of a grey, dystopian world, into which Jesus enters as a sign of hope. The set designed by Guy Brigg and Liz Nicholson made use of a two-tier structure, and the relationship between the large balcony and the main floor was well exploited. The Sermon on the Mount used this to powerful, and even comic, effect. Members of the crowd above took turns to shout out 'Blessed are...etc.' to Jesus standing below, who had to improvise the various tag lines, 'For they shall...'
A thumbs-up also to Ashley Bale for his excellent lighting design. It's a show that can provide a lot of fun for the lighting department and they rose to the occasion. Maybe I was in the right mood, but I kept noticing how well matched the lighting arrangements were to the moods of the scenes.
It is impossible to single out individual actors in such a strong ensemble performance, but standout numbers included Turn Back O Man, with the lead sung by Sonia (Saffi Needham, vamping it up in a bravura burlesque performance) and Bless the Lord (Ellis Lovett as Joanne in an amazing vocal performance that was, unsurprisingly, reprised as an encore to appease the cheering audience following the curtain call). But in truth, there were no weak links amongst the principals who all delivered their solos with a maturity that belied their teenage years.
This is the first time that I've seen a show by MYCO, but it won't be my last.
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
Please use the Contact Form for anything apart from comments on blog posts.