Thirty-something years before he gave the Wicked Witch Of The West her anthemic reason to take to the skies in ‘Wicked’, Stephen Schwartz created the musical ‘Godspell’, which tells the story of Jesus through a series of parables based on the Gospel of Matthew, brought together in a book by John-Michael Tebelak. The tales cover a range of teachings from unity to compassion, love and charity, and are interspersed with songs composed by Schwartz with many of the lyrics taken from various hymns. Styles range from gospel to funk, from vaudeville to rock, and the piece is a popular choice for youth theatres and amateur companies.
Cadogan Hall recently hosted a concert version of the 1971 musical, performed by the British Theatre Academy, and also featuring Luke Bayer (‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’) and Max Bowden (‘EastEnders’). Lending their vocals to the musical’s standout songs were Laura Baldwin (‘Waitress’, ‘Eugenius’), Rachel John (‘Memphis’, ‘Hamilton’) and Ramin Karimloo (‘Phantom’, ‘Love Never Dies’).
Less instantly accessible than ‘Joseph’, and lacking the power of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘Godspell’ may be fun to perform but it isn’t an easy musical to warm to as an audience member, with many of the tales feeling quite twee and very much like a Sunday School lesson, although the book has been updated from the 70s, with references to smart phones, ‘The Weakest Link’, ‘Six The Musical’ and even Trump which got several laughs from the audience. The music is certainly the biggest strength of the show, with a few toe-tappers and memorable melodies, although several of the songs do get very repetitive very quickly.
The young cast performed well, giving the piece seemingly endless energy and positivity. They were kitted out in a rainbow of brightly-coloured outfits, in practically every colour that the 80s were built on. It was also nice to see that legwarmers aren’t just for productions of ‘Fame’ anymore. The Academy definitely contains some bright stars for the future, and they’re just at the start of their journey. Some of the vocals fell a little flat at times, and others’ energy sometimes overwhelmed their control, but these are minor criticisms of performers who are just starting out. The talent is there, and the skill will undoubtedly refine itself with time.
The West End heavyweights gave unsurprisingly assured performances, and were a joy to listen to as always. Laura Baldwin made the somewhat repetitive “Day By Day” very enjoyable with the purity of her voice, and showed what a star she is in light of the recent ‘Waitress’ casting controversy. Rachel John took us all to church with a sultry, sassy performance of “Turn Back O Man” with her usual effortless silky timbre. And Ramin Karimloo charmed the entire audience with his rendition of “Beautiful City”, which was indeed as beautiful as its title. Luke Bayer also did well as Jesus in a performance of warmth and charm, and showing that he’d be a pretty great fit for Evan Hansen when that American megahit comes to town later in the year.
All in all, a good production of a “marmite” show, whose songs are just catchy enough to make up for a book which can feel a bit of a chore. But then, a show which teaches kindness towards your fellow man as we enter the various Pride celebrations happening across the world seems a nice thing to celebrate, and an important message to learn at any age. A success for the Academy, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing many of the youngsters treading our stages in the years ahead.
Reviewed by Rob Bartley
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