Hills Musical Theatre Company always puts on a great show but did I notice a smaller audience than usual at opening night? I think people might be like me … outdated. When I am asked to go to GODSPELL I usually think wholesome, worthy but why? Why do this show? It’s a bit preachy and the music is from the early 70s.
In theatrical terms I love to be proven wrong! And HillsMTC’s GODSPELL gave me a life lesson for sure. Theirs is the new 2012 version and it’s a stunning updating. It ran for almost a year on Broadway. The music that was such a hit in my youth is still there, naturally the Gospels remain untinkered with but there are contemporary references and most importantly a lot of the seriously misunderstood allusions of the original have been ditched! No clowns or spangles here. Just two or three or twenty and an audience gathered in the name of joy and love of performing.
Based mostly on the Gospels of Matthew, GODSPELL is a series of parables leading ultimately to a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus. The show had its origins in the writer John-Michael Tebelak being refused entry to a Baptist church in the 1970s because of the hippy dungarees he wore. As a directing student at Carnegie Mellon University he decided to turn the experience into theatre, eventually teaming up with another alumnus, Stephen Schwartz, now known as a three time Grammy and Oscar winner.
This production of GODSPELL begins with a superb voice. And it begins as it intends to go on … great voices, terrific performances and a band who to know when to get out of the way. The soloist is centre stage and acapella. Her alto is rich and resonates around the hall before she is joined by an equally superb soprano. Then the babble of voices come in and the cast pile through the auditorium, choral work extraordinaire with a simple piano under.
It is here that I am going to apologize to the female leads in this production. I was under your spell to the point of not taking individual note of the many brilliantly expressed female solo sections. I have just written “lovely voice”, “beautiful rendering” and “what a top note!” all through.
And that’s not such a bad thing. When you can’t put a wafer between 6 female leads, there is community at work. Ensemble males Stephen Ollis and Greg Wood are also terrific solo singers and together with Renee Bechara, Fiona Brennan , Suzanne Chin, Linda Laoulach, Leanne Mordini, and Bernadette Sinclair you are a true ensemble. Wonderful voices working together for the wholeness of the production.
And this a pleasingly cohesive production. Director John Brown and Musical Director Sue Brown have a clear vision and every element is part of the whole. Yet there are constant surprises and oblique ways of managing the dignity and power with enthusiasm, blocking choices and direct-to-audience appeal. This is evident early as the show travels toward the entry of Jesus. ‘Prepare Ye’.
After a pretty clever lighting effect to guide John the Baptist onto to the stage … BOOM! The rock score kicks in. The cast are exuberant, the anointing is character filled and great fun and the harmonies… truly exciting. This song is one of the great takeways from GODSPELL, it’s a toe tapper that lingers and it is exactly what you want to see and hear in a musical. Humming along as I type even now.
Jeff Fisher is fantastic to watch. He is warm and personable as one would expect. He’s wise, giving and open but there’s a solid bedrock of teacher and master in his performance. One of the things I liked most on the acting side of this production was the rapport he has with this excellent cast. And with Jonathan Barons as Judas.
Fisher has gravitas and not just because he is the tallest. He exhibits a separateness without being condescending and has a mildness without being wishy washy. His voice is clear and welcoming. He’s just really good. As is Barons as John the Baptist then as Judas. Both men vocally can hold the stage alone when required and their acting is unfalteringly in the moment. Even when there are some inventive modernisations in the production.
The contemporary feel which makes this show so enjoyable is down to John Brown’s direction. John the Baptist (Barons) rallies the rabble with fist bumps and high fives to attend to Jesus. There are “you gotta be kidding me” and “please explain”. There’s the North West rail link and Facebook. And a very good sport who was extracted as a volunteer from the audience! The set is clever and used with variety, the lighting is colourful without losing the white needed for clarity, the audio is really well operated, the costuming works in favour of movement and character.
There are some lovely sequences. I was particularly impressed by ‘Save the People’. Here there is a military, God’s Army feel to the lines of dancers, a passion and drive which is soothingly mitigated as the choreo morphs into hands raised and faces are gentled in supplication. The descants are chilling in this and the cohesive cast work is on display.
It’s also worth going just to see the torment of Hades with Abraham and the angels, to hear the cast sound effects for the parable of the sowers, not to mention the swine and the fatted calf. That is a very excitable cast up there! Loved that fun side but I also stopped to appreciate the life affirming Auslan and hand mime work.
And the detailed musical direction. It’s a bit of a tough gig this show. Constant changes of tempo inside songs like ‘Day by Day’ where piano is highlighted by the gentle orchestration only to be kicked suddenly into high gear as the drumming rocks out. The mandolin intro for Zacharias and woodblock and percussive work in ‘All For the Best’ versus the full 70’s back to GODSPELL’s rock roots of ‘Light of the World’. And my favourite of the night. The single note piano strikes which provide an almost ghostly heartbeat behind ‘Beautiful City.’
I also enjoyed the choreography by Laurie Tancred which is vibrant and led by the story and theme. Her use of body percussion and foot stomps lifts elevate the happy-clappy nature of the text. She also moves her cast in lines quite often and this gives that uniformity in response which is a really important way to bring so many different characters to a single message.
And there are still messages in GODSPELL. To take as you want. For me the ending is a bit slow as we move to the crucifixion, even with Fisher’s focused and emotional solo ‘Beautiful City’ For the two women who were in front of us with tears rolling down, there was obviously a different response to the final scenes.
I do find myself converted though. This is not the stodgy, preachy, self-satisfied GODSPELL of my remembering. This is an enjoyable, surprising, heart-warming offering and Hills Musical Theatre Company throws the light squarely on why GODSPELL has been a musical theatre favourite for 50 years. A great night out for everybody!
GODSPELL by Hills Musical Theatre Company continues until Saturday 11th November. More information and tickets at