★★★½☆ Timely revival makes up in spirit for what it lacks in polish.

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
February 10, 2016

The early 1970s saw two musicals break new ground while exploring a common and controversial theme: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell. More rock oratorio than opera, Superstar was an active scenic dramatisation of the last days of the Messiah, the characters occasionally clashing (most notably in the thrilling trial scene) but more often soliloquising in song. With a focus on the political ramifications of a challenge to religious order, its ongoing contemporary relevance means it has easily held its place in the repertoire. Godspell was a more complex concept. Taking its ideas from Brecht, street theatre and commedia, it was more dramatically passive, seeking to explore the main ethical themes of Matthew’s gospel through semi-comical retelling of the parables before moving on to the serious matter of the crucifixion. Its catchy pop score of the period caught the musical imagination, while its cry for redemption from whatever authoritarian malaise was currently afflicting society (Vietnam, ‘80s fiscal greed, climate change – take your pick) has given it an immediate appeal for the young and disillusioned. Its focus on the Christian message made it immediately popular with schools and churches, ensuring an affection that has reached out across the generations.

To be successful, a performance of Godspell needs to acknowledge that the show is both theatrical event and religious experience, without feeling overblown or alienating a non-Christian audience. With its regular reminders that God will roast sinners in hellfire, at times it peddles a difficult message to offset against the more important and fundamental one of “love thy neighbour”. It also needs to embrace rather than resist the cutesy, ‘hippy-trippy commune’ aspects of the book. Not an easy brief, and if Glenn Elston’s warm-hearted reimagining for Room 8 succeeds, on the whole, it does so thanks to a simple approach with a strong sense of ensemble playing.

Lucy Gransbury

Set against a grungy pile of oil drums sporting symbols of all religions and philosophies from Judasism to the Chinese yin and yang, the ‘troupe’ start off as suited salesmen, their argumentative exhortations to rampant consumerism (which replaces the tricky opening Tower of Babble number) sees them stripped (nearly) bare, desperately receptive and ready for the arrival of John (the excellent Mark Dickinson) with his famous Pre-e-e-pare Ye the Way of the Lord. When the Messiah does arrive, rather like Robert Graves’ King Jesus, he’s not at all what you expect – in fact Christopher Southall is perhaps the least ‘Jesus-like’ person on stage.

It’s a neat trick and with a hint of the Holy fool about him, Southall delivers his message with conviction and just a hint of the dangerous fanatic. He sings cleanly and clearly, and if he lacks the final spark of divine charisma, it is still a creditable performance. Dickinson, in the dual roles of John and Judas, is the finest performer on the stage, possessed of an attractive baritone voice, a strong physical presence and a natural instinct for the significant quantity of adlibbing that is such a crucial element to make the show take flight. He’s very much the glue that holds it all together when things threaten to fall apart, and both he and Southall handle well the change from flippant to serious.

This is a pretty traditional Godspell, and the initial japery with its layer of clownish dress-up felt a trifle forced. As a result, the show takes a while to get into its stride, not helped by an opening night audience who were a bit of a tough crowd. By halfway through the first part things started to warm up, thanks to some classic audience participation (a man invited on stage to play charades who allegedly had never done it before and a guy asked to play Lazarus who put his halo on upside down). As Tebelak and Schwartz wrote it, there’s no attempt to show the Resurrection at the end of this production. However, a simple and touching gesture of forgiveness when the disciples finally join hands with Judas goes to the heart of the real message of Godspell.

Christopher Southall as Jesus

There are plenty of contemporary references to Facebook, selfies – even straight social dating site Tinder gets a look-in. Donald Trump makes an appearance and Mathias Cormann gets name-checked with respect to tax collectors. The musical update is less radical than you might imagine, with most songs sounding pretty much as originally conceived. The percussion-only take on We Beseech Thee is a nice touch, and it might have been more interesting to have treated a few more numbers a bit more radically. Under Lucy O’Brien’s sure-footed musical direction the bigger, rockier numbers work best, but the better sung ballads are also in the groove.

The rest of the hard-working cast make for an appealing bunch of disciples, and if at times their youthful inexperience shows, that’s no bad thing in a musical that aims to speak out for the new against institutionalised convention. Louisa Fitzhardinge is the standout, excellent in Learn Your Lesson’s Well and singing a beautiful On the Willows. Her excellent improv skills are tested to the full, calling for a ridiculously wide range of characters from Pharisees to sheep to The Donald. She’s well contrasted with Lucy Gransbury who also plays a fine panoply of cutes and grotesques, though her voice is below the note in Day By Day and the vamping in Turn Back, O Man feels a bit too pat. Ben Yarram, Sam Jones and Nick Robinson make up the rest of the cast of actor musicians, offering sterling musical support and proving a bit of a hit in the parable of the prodigal son.

Mark Dickinson as Judas

There are times when this production feels like it needs some bigger ideas, and others when a few more grade-A actors would have helped, but on the whole it has the necessary spirit and that carries it a long way. I suspect there’s a more radical take on Godspell out there – one that addresses issues of contemporary attitudes to world religions, for example. Still, this ultimately engaging production is unlikely to disappoint the show’s aficionados.

Godspell plays Sydney Opera House until February 9-14 and then plays Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, February 21 and 28.