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Friday, June 14, 2024

Theatre review: Godspell is invigorating

There is a reason that even after forty-plus years, Godspell endures. Not only does it benefit from its source material, it is one of those rare musicals that insists on being reinvented for audiences of the day. In the Arts Club Theatre Company production, director Sara-Jeanne Hosie reinvigorates Godspell, successfully making its central message that much more powerful and relevant.

Based largely on the gospel of Saint Matthew, Godspell’s structure is pretty straight-forward, presented as a series of parables and their moral lessons. Many of the parables will be immediately recognizable to audiences with even just a passing knowledge of the bible – the Good Samaritan, Lazarus rising from the dead – and it is within this familiarity that there is an inherent calm among the show’s sometimes frenetic pace.

Like many productions before it, this Godspell invariably finds itself trying to balance its core with an overwhelming desire to infuse so much business and modern winking references, that its central message is sometimes overwhelmed. The result is a cacophony of sound and visuals that is at times competing with itself. But that is a small price to pay for a show that gives us everything from “Bless the Lord” as a yoga class, a musically-inspired take on the Sower of the Seeds parable, and even a TEDx talk.

While some may view director Hosie’s casting decisions as controversial, in reality they are an appropriate fit for the irreverence that is another mainstay of this show. There is an immediate acceptance of a female Jesus and a 12-year old playing John the Baptist that wouldn’t be possible within a more traditional approach to Christ and his teachings.

Never mind triple threats, this cast is the even more elusive quadruple threat as they sing, dance, act, and play upwards of twenty-two different instruments through the course of the evening. With a great deal of Godspell’s enduring strength coming from Stephen Schwartz’s songs, this cast delivers big-time in the music department under the musical direction of Danny Balkwill, who also does double-duty on stage. With each of the ensemble given an opportunity to shine, there are no wallflowers here.

Aubrey Joy Maddock, Andrew Cohen, and Jennifer Copping. Photo by David Cooper.
Aubrey Joy Maddock, Andrew Cohen, and Jennifer Copping. Photo by David Cooper.

As Judas, Andrew Cohen may lack a little subtlety, but has one of the best voices of the night, and Katrina Reynolds delivers a show-stopping “Bless the Lord”. As the Homeless Man, Craig Salkeld may not get much to say, but his rendition of “Beautiful City” is so heartfelt, that the song’s message of hope for humanity will touch you to your very core. Janet Gigliotti leads the cast in a memorable “Day by Day”, and when the ensemble comes together, there is not only some beautiful harmonies, but an energy that is unstoppable.

In our recent interview with director Hosie, she pointed to an “ethereal quality” to Jennifer Copping, who plays Jesus, that she was immediately drawn to. That quality shows on stage, with an easiness about her that encapsulates the role perfectly.

Taking the idea of community to an extreme, director Hosie breaks down the fourth wall between audience and actor on a number of occasions. While it takes little away from the strength of the show, it did seem unnecessary, and even a little desperate in its attempt to connect.

Beyond the updated cultural references peppered throughout its book, Alan Brodie and Sean Nieuwenhuis’s train station set is an appropriate modern-day gathering place for these disparate characters. Nieuwenhis’s projections also help set the tone nicely from scene-to-scene, and Connie Hosie’s costumes transition wonderfully from street wear to pops of colour and whimsy.

In her program notes, Hosie embraces Schwartz’s view that Godspell is about community and not about religion. For an art form that celebrates community each night, it is as uplifting as its other central message: love thy neighbour as thyself.  In successfully reinventing Godspell for a new generation, its invigorating message still comes across loud and clear.

Godspell with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Directed by Sara-Jeanne Hosie. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston Street, Vancouver) until August 1. Visit for tickets and information.

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