Thursday 25 June 2015

Godspell is clever choreography & staging

Personal backdrop, confession :  In January, 1971 as a senior high school English teacher I used my ancient iron Underwood to type out on the old mimeograph stencils (that smelled vaguely of iodine) some 53 pages of the libretto of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar. Without hesitation I violated the copyright restrictions from the book that accompanied the vinyl 2-record set their studios released the year before.

Not only was the title of the rock opera avant garde, but its name and raunchy lyrics struck the world as downright blasphemous just 10 years after the first Catholic President was elected in USA. So for both of those reasons I delighted as a lapsed-Baptist to inflict JCS on my English class students in Grades 11 & 12 : to be experienced and discussed as drama, literature, religion and music. In those days in Newton, BC one could get away with such teachable moments. The late Superintendent Jack M. Evans welcomed rebels with a cause. No longer, alas.

Thus I found myself midway between shocked & gobsmacked to discover that until today I had never seen or heard the musical Godspell (from the olde English word meaning "gospel" or "good news"). Nudging 70, I am pleased to be, on occasion, an ingenue. Which is what I am with this script, and thus able to view it with eyes that are at once myopic and fresh.

Given my JCS experiences 44 years back, I entered the Granville Island main stage of Arts Club with some curiosity about the timeliness of the script that was originally a Master's Degree thesis project by its creator the late John-Michael Tebelak in 1970 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. 

After a show involving his fellow drama majors, the original two-week, 10 performance public run took place at the famed experimental Cafe LaMama in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1971. About the same time Stephen Schwartz, another Carnegie Mellon grad, was hired to write a new song score. All but one song from the original ("By My Side") were scrapped in favour of Schwartz's mix of folk, gospel, rock and pop done vaudeville style.

Nostalgia re-mount, or...?  : What relevance a musical about the Jesus story mostly from the Gospel of Matthew when fewer than one-in-three Canadians professes to be a practicing Christian these days (Maclean's, April 13, 2015), thought I. Director Sara-Jeanne Hosie issues her own explanation in the show program : "Godspell was never intended to be a story about religion; it was meant to be a story about community. When I set out to cast this piece I did not have a specific gender, age or race in mind for any of these roles -- particularly Jesus (Jennifer Copping). I was looking for a cast of multi-talented actor-singer-dance-musicians...who had the right spirit to carry this story."

A ginormous hit 45 years back, Godspell enjoyed some 2,000 performances before being made into a movie in 1973 and then virtually mothballed by big-city professional theatre companies until it was re-mounted on Broadway in 2011. Having said that, its continued production over the decades by high school drama clubs, community theatre groups and local churches continued apace, meanwhile, according to the show's archives. So what do Hosie (who also choreographed the piece) and her troupe achieve in the current production that will attract summer crowds in Vancouver?

For some, it's Godspell's music. Many of the tunes quickly become an earworm -- not unlike the music of the Swedish group ABBA in its mega-hit Mama Mia. Once the worm gets in your ear you can't expunge the tune by an act of will, it seems -- only time, sleep and other divertissement to take your mind off it (think of "Day By Day" that the 5th Dimension covered in 1973).

For Hosie, it was the thought of spontaneous encounters at a train station that provided the show's staging hook : "A train station is a transient place but it doesn't have to be. It can be a place where there are profound moments of community. Where strangers can come together and share joys, fears, music and laughter. If we can lift our heads and really see the other people with whom we share space on a daily basis, we can learn so much about how others exist in the world and, hopefully, make it a more welcome and colourful place to be," she states in her program Note.

Jesus, 2015  -- an unresurrected Jewish guru -- plus friends : The structure of the show is to take parables and sermonettes attributed to Jesus (e.g. the story of the prodigal son; the Beatitudes, &c.) and expose some uninitiated random folks to their messages. Through song-&-dance. As the show opens, a clutter of Jerusalem Station passengers, glued to their android and iPhone devices, repeat aloud various "words of the prophets (that) are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls" as S-&-G put it. They bump into one another rudely and generally live in their own preoccupied worlds. Until Jesus arrives and begins her messaging about folks' need to love their tormentors and through humility be exalted ever after. 

As has been done repeatedly with this script, current-trend ideas and icons give the piece an urgent presence : social media; Tesla cars; Darth Vader; student loan oppression; a Ted talk. These updates are obviously designed to appeal to younger theatre-goers who might have little grounding in formal Christian mythos and theology -- never learned any of it to begin with -or- any such teaching they might have had un-stuck itself as quickly as a 10-minute-back Instagram. How else to make room for the latest social media inputs that are forever zapping their device-screens and their brains? 

Production values compensate largely :  Albeit the theology is too dense and the show probably 20 minutes overlong, full credit to Director Hosie, the performers and the production crew for a visual and audial jamboree of clever choreography, tuneful charts to accompany Jesus's teachable moments, and a set and costumes colour-co-ordinated to provide some Wow! moments.

Ms. Copping as Jesus was a smart choice with her swirled shoulder-length locks, warm engaging smile, and powerful voice. But probably it was Lauren Bowler as the sex kitten Vamp -- particularly during the Lazarus number -- who grabbed the spotlight most effectively on the night. Her pipes and pizzazz are hard to top. As Judas, Andrew Cohen turned in a strong performance, though Matt Palmer as The Architect may have outshone him in the second act with some terrific acrobatic footwork and singing bravado.

Musical Director Danny Balkwill did double duty as The Cop of Jerusalem Station, also The Cop of the Aisles getting patrons to keep the stairs clear for all the action that roared up and down them all night. Doing "Day By Day", waitress Janet Gigliotti's voice was rich and sensuous and earned hearty applause. Lead Scott Perrie's vocal subtlety on "All Good Gifts" was a sweet and touching turn.

For their part, the sets, lighting and screen projections of Messrs. Alan Brodie and Sean Nieuwenhuis feature imaginative backlit coloured panels behind the train station platforms and staircases that taken all together were balanced and pleasing and co-ordinated well indeed with the coloured-shoe costuming schtick schemed up by designer Connie Hosie. 

Cleverest of all, however, was Director Sara-Jeanne Hosie's choreography and blocking of the 12-member ensemble on the train station platforms that tied the evening's jump and bounce and whirl-a-gig dance riffs together with the songs and sets. It is her energy and wit that give the show its final pleasing gestalt in spite of its off-the-shelf afterlife preachings by creator Tebelak back in the day. Can't be denied, however, that the Golden Rule theme that prevails is universal good advice any time. 

Who gonna like : Folks who remember Godspell from its earliest hippie-dippie days will no doubt get a buzz off their ol' fave tunes being re-struck by the many talented vocalists and instrumentalists who populate this cast. Similar to JCS in this respect, the contempo flip of Biblical language and story-telling in modern patois is fun for those who have such a hankering. As noted immediately above, meanwhile, surely the stand-out staging and choreography and visual zing! will please people the most regardless of their religious bent. 

Particulars : Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak. Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (whose Wicked is currently popular on Broadway). At the Arts Club Granville Island stage through August 1st. Schedules, curtain times and tickets for the 2 1/2 hour show (including intermission) via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew : Director / Choreographer Sara-Jeanne Hosie.  Musical Director Danny Balkwill.  Set & Lighting Designer Alan Brodie.  Set & Projection Designer Sean Nieuwenhuis.  Costume Designer Connie Hosie.  Sound Designer Geoff Hollingshead.  Stage Manager Angela Beaulieu.  Assistant Stage Manager Ronaye Haynes.  Assistant to the Director Anna Kuman.  Musical Assistant Caitlin Hayes.  Apprentice Stage Manager Airyn Lancaster. 

Performers :  Danny Balkwill.  Lauren Bowler.  Andre Cohen.  Jennifer Copping.  Janet Gigliotti.  Aubrey Joy Maddock.  Matt Palmer.  Kale Penny.  Scott Perrie.  Katrina Reynolds.  Craig Salkeld.  Lindsay Warnock. 


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