NODA Review: Godspell
Robin Kelly (NODA) - 2021:
Although familiar with the original incarnation of Godspell, I am bound to say this was a definite advance. An outstanding company created a strong sense of ensemble, delivering some complex harmonies and clever choreography within imaginative staging surrounding a very tight band.
Tal Hewitt, assisted by Stephen Hewitt, have obviously had an extremely busy time recently, having only completed direction duties elsewhere three weeks previously. However there was no evident reduction in creativity in this very different style of presentation. Placing the band at the centre of the action definitely enhanced overall sound production, with surrounding rostra and scaffolding framework providing flexibility in cast placement. There was a terrific energy about the piece, helped by swift movement between parables and other events, using a minimum of props. Small blocks were used to create different levels and re-purposed within both dialogue and musical scenes.
Charlie Smith (Jesus) had the most beautiful voice – shown to particular advantage in Beautiful City. In many respects, he embodied the kind of attributes that might be wished for in the character of Jesus. Kindness, empathy, understanding and the able to communicate with his followers in accessible language.
François Vanhoutte (John/Judas) had the advantage of an imposing physical presence and confidence which should have belied the inner turmoil of the character who ultimately betrays Jesus. The script provides little in the way of opportunity to explore this but it does need to inform portrayal. In other respects François hit all the marks available in an assured performance.
To call the rest of the company Ensemble is actually to do a disservice to the talent on display here. A goodly proportion had their moment in the spotlight with Giusy Pappalardo, Bex Evans, Siobhan McConnon, Tara Blackburn, Joey Mears, Will Emery, Tom Outhwaite, Claire Brewin, Kate Vlietstra,
Mike Dukes and Dominic Bull (also taking to the keyboard occasionally!) all having featured solos, while the dance talents of Zsolti Szabo, Becky Sweeney and Holly Walker did not go unnoticed. More importantly, everyone worked as a team both in support of each other and as individuals. The energy was unrelenting with strong vocal work (including some complex harmonies) and tight choreography.
With the exception of Tower of Babble, in which some excellent harmony worked was marred by indistinct diction and/or sound balance issues, the overall musical quality was outstanding. Sharing musical director duties, Stephen Hewitt and Harry Style produced both strong company and solo numbers as well as forming part of an extremely sharp band supporting performances. The line-up of two guitars, two keyboards bass and drums produced a really clean rock orientated sound.
Tal Hewitt’s choreography together with guest Paul Brookland Williams on Turn Back, O Man and We Beseech Thee, made the most of some exceptional dance talent available as well as involving non specialists. Execution of moves was precise, with high energy levels sustained throughout.
Costumes by Laura Leo and Annie Houseago befitted the informal nature of presentation and rock music driven score, with Jesus appropriately dressed in white.
Set and Props
Concept by Chris Hughes-Copping, realised by Andrew Laidlaw, worked extremely well. It is always a risk placing musicians at the heart of setting but in this instance everything worked. The gradual raising of rostra height either side of the band towards the up-stage platforms ensured that cast could move into positions quickly without having to negotiate potentially hazardous inclines or overlarge steps. Surrounding the structure with scaffolding frame also allowed for usage flexibility, including the final crucifixion.
Given that action flowed smoothly even when action was on the appropriately frenetic side, the conclusion must be that Mark Steward was doing an efficient job.
While most of the vocal work was delivered downstage of the band, performers could at times be found anywhere around the centrally placed band. This could have been a nightmare in terms of sound balance. However, overall sound quality (with the possible exception of Tower of Babble) was exceptionally sharp. Huge credit is therefore due to Sound Designer Henry Whittaker and associates Adam Coppard, Adrian Jeakins, Ben Fry , Chris Love and Ali Lown. Clearly production was extremely labour intensive but the outcome was well worth the investment.
There is an extent to which the best lighting is achieved when the audience is unconscious of the effects created. Conversely, the audience becomes aware when mistakes are made. In this case, Chris Taylor with associate Alex Drofiak created supportive illumination with individual effects which enhanced but never overshadowed the action on stage. This is much less easy to achieve than is commonly imagined.
It is ironic that, having put together an extremely attractive programme (which I would suggest be submitted for consideration in the NODA programme and poster competition) and given credit for the huge number of people responsible for mounting the production, no credit can be found for the person(s) who compiled it! The individual photos and montages really capture the spirit of the programme, with informative notes from the society and production team together with cast biographies. However one note of an undoubtedly pedantic nature must be made. Anything “unique” is the only one of a particular type and is without equal or like. The use of modifiers such as “rather” and “very” should therefore be avoided!
Imaginative staging, with an excellent six-piece band in the centre of rostra rising to upstage platforms surrounded by a flexibly employed scaffolding framework, provided the foundation for this presentation of the 2011 reimagined version of Godspell. A strong company produced some outstanding individual and ensemble performances, with choreography using all the talent available to best advantage. Skilled sound balancing ensured that musicians provided a pulsing rock score which supported but never overpowered vocalists. It was a thoroughly enjoyable production.