Review by Carly Fisher
Let’s be honest, religion can be a hard sell - whether it is because you find it disrespectful or because you don’t want these old-fashioned beliefs infiltrating your sacred theatrical space, the outcome is the same. So when the Hayes announced that Godspell was making a comeback this year, I can’t say it was one at the top of my list to see. Luckily in the hands of Richard Carroll and an EXCEPTIONALLY talented cast and creative team, this old musical has found a new life.
Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak, the show follows Jesus Christ as he recruits followers and teaches them lessons of humanity and morality through song and dance. It is a mixture of Stephen Schwartz songs and parables from the bible set in a largely non-linear fashion. Though definitely a well praised musical, I must admit, it is not one I have ever engaged with previously - the songs are not particularly memorable and the storyline doesn’t really interest me. With that in mind, having not seen a production of Godspell previously, I can only begin to imagine what it traditionally looks and feels like…I’m glad I saw this version.
Emma White’s set is striking from the moment you enter the intimate Hayes theatre. Set in an Australian bar with vibes that feel like you are about to see a production of Hair and familiarities of clubs and bars around the Cross, right by the Hayes, the space is covered in neon lights, pride flags, a stripper pole, a jukebox and a functional bar that provided more humour than it bargained for on opening night. White’s skilled eye allows for the set to start in a state of disarray, be cleverly put back together again, and redestroyed, all in a stylised fashion. Kudos to White, the design is a triumph.
Less of a triumph were the costumes by Angela White which really were hit and miss. Many looked great - stand out costumes being those designed for Jesus, played by Billie Palin and for the character played by Gillian Cosgriff. Other costumes felt ill-fitting and left the actors to have to fidget an excessive amount with the costumes just to seemingly feel comfortable. At times the costuming was therefore distracting and ultimately, in amongst the great design of the show, I felt the costumes were often disjoined and largely disappointing.
Perhaps this disappointment lay in the fact that the cast won me over so immensely, I didn’t want anything less than perfect for them because as an ensemble, they certainly only delivered the best of the best. Collectively, this group was perfectly cast to create one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen in a while! If you wanted to get picky you could certainly note that some actors felt under-utilised because you know them from something else and know that they are brilliant, but realistically, the performance is balanced and gives everyone their individual moment to shine.
Why this group is SO impressive is because of their skill - it exceeds being a triple threat and moves into the quadruple ++ area of having all cast being able to sing, dance, act and be a multi-instrumentalist…just a small addition, not! Whatever instrument anyone in the group picked up, they mastered. And please don’t read this thinking that they were all stock standard instruments - no, there was everything from the piano accordian, to the euphonium, to the chroma harp, to Gankogui, to Ukeleles, to saxophones, to jam blocks, to musical saws, to cellos, to glockenspiels, to trumpets, to hunting horns…and so the extensive list continues!
Further to this, each instrumentalist was not given a moment to just perform on their instrument in its traditional manner, no! There was a piano moment in which Cosgriff and Stefanie Caccamo played together, one top of the other, or a keyboard scene which had multi-instrumentalist and Musical Director, Victoria Falconer, accompanied by 5 cast members, walking up and down the aisle stairs playing the keyboard without missing a single note!
As female Jesus, Palin leads the cast. The decision to cast a female in the role of one of the most famous men in history was a brilliant one because no one could have been more perfect for the role than Palin. Talented, interesting, spicy in her delivery and extremely exciting to watch throughout, Palin’s Jesus is energetic, skilled and importantly, very loveable despite the cheek.
Jane Watt consistently grabbed my attention from within the ensemble - her facial expressions are authentic, her commitment throughout immense and ultimately, she is just someone whose natural stage presence is very exciting. I am looking forward to seeing lots more from her.
Caccamo delivers a beautiful heart felt solo that adds a layer of vulnerability to the show that it really needed. For a show where we know that what lies ahead for the protagonist isn’t good, the stakes felt quite low. Never-the-less, Caccamo has a beautiful voice and it was great to see her in another show - she again is someone who I hope will continue to reappear on our stages.
Alfie Gledhill brought the moves!! Gledhill is such a dynamic performer who seems on stage to be just such a genuinely nice person that you are rooting for his character throughout! Jeremi Campese is newer to me and in this show he really stood out, delivering his character with charisma and an element of cheekiness that made him endearing and exciting to watch. Abe Mitchell offers a beautifully balanced performance - at times endearing and comfortably part of the group, and at other times, taking on the semi-villain role.
It is exciting to see fresh faces being introduced to the Hayes stage and audience in this production. Chaya Ocampo may be newer to the scene but vocally she absolutely delivers and I anticipate this is but the start of where we will see her go in the Australian musical theatre world. Quinton Rich makes his Hayes debut with a great sleekness to his character and charm to his solo song.
Cosgriff is someone who I have not previously seen on stage but whom I will now be looking out for in anything that she does. Her comedic timing is flawless, her talent extreme and her stage presence enormous. Wow wow wow.
Musical Director Falconer rounds out the cast - speaking of wow, it is impossible not to be uberly impressed by the number of instruments that Falconer not just plays but masters throughout. The musical direction in this piece is extraordinary! Sally Dashwood’s choreography is vibrant, period appropriate, fun to watch and yet, very obviously complicated. A few large dance numbers heightened this show so extraordinarily and I am excited to see Dashwood’s next show!
Finally, the creative vision from Carroll is clear - this is not your stock standard interpretation of Godspell. This is an artistic reminder about the value of community, the importance of kindness and the integrity of morals. Carroll is one of Australia’s best and so it is no surprise that a musical that really, on paper, does not appeal, suddenly will become one of the hottest tickets in Sydney.
The show is not perfect but this is a brilliant interpretation of it. If you think you’ll be able to look past the religious aspects and diatribe of a script, you are going to be in for a wild night of entertainment by some of Sydney’s best creatives.
Image Credit: AAA Media