Godspell reimagined, then unimagined

Godspell Reimagined - photo by Mark GambinoIn most cities and established towns, buskers are a common site. Walking down a busy street on a particularly pleasant day, or during a lively festival, you can experience a vivid amalgamation of song and short comedic skits, each vying for your attention long enough for your purse or wallet to open. Together the atmosphere can be truly electric, even if the individual performances lack talent altogether.

Based on the 1971 musical by Stephen Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell reimagined (directed and designed by Glenn Elston) attempts to retell the gospel of St Matthew through a series of songs and skits. Regrettably, the audience had already opened their purse or wallet, and there is a very good reason why the game Charades, interpretative dance, and badly mimed ukulele playing do not tend to feature in musical theatre productions.

Given the apparent freedom to reimagine this iconic show, it was a shame to see that this production came across as rushed and haphazard, with much of its content appearing as an added afterthought. It was not clear whether the show, or individual elements, were meant to be a parody of the biblical verse or simply light-hearted and jovial, and more so it was not clear what the overall artistic vision was for Godspell’s “reimagination”.

However, unlike a street full of buskers with varied levels of talent or ability, Godspell reimagined possessed a cast that I am sure could have been capable of a miraculous performance, if given the guidance.

Mark Dickinson with his strong and charismatic stage presence was a highlight of the show, though it was unclear where his dual roles of John and Judas began and ended.  Perhaps this was part of the reimagining, rather than saving costs. Bonnie Anderson vocally dominated the performance and gave a beautiful rendition of Day by Day made famous by Colleen Hewett in the original 1971 Broadway production.

Through no fault of her own, Anderson was lost between song numbers as did the other talented performers, including Jesus himself (Christopher Southall). Hewett makes a welcome guest appearance in the performance giving the production a strong finish, but it was not clear, even at the end, what happened to its start.

The live music was entertaining, yet the talented musicians being incorporated into the show were also judged equally for their power to act. To their defence, the set did not allow for much and was somewhat simple and uninspired. Given more attention with respect to the lighting and even the staging, it could have been very effective as a downplayed backdrop to a powerful and moving production – if in fact that was the vision of this reimagining…

The writings of St Matthew are still relevant today, whether one accepts the work as the word of God or not, and the original Godspell was a show that showed this relevance through a more contemporary setting, Godspell reimagined will bring both laughs and grimaces to the supper table.

As much promise and hope one can have for this production to once again grace our stages, this reimagination appeared more like a disconnected series of thoughts rather than a fully-fledged production derived from a show with such a long and successful history. And much like walking down a street full of buskers I know where I would have put my money.

Godspell Reimagined
Fairfax Studio – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St. Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 26 October 2016 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 6 November 2016
Information and Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au

Image: Godspell Reimagined – photo by Mark Gambino

Review: Jimmy Twin