Almost the perfect show for Easter Week, Godspell always suffered badly in comparison with Jesus Christ Superstar. Both use the parables and storyline of St Matthew covering the Last Seven Days, but whereas Superstar is a full-blown rock oratorio with some of Lloyd Webber’s best music, Godspell is a whimsical off-Broadway workshop affair - admittedly with half a dozen superb songs by Stephen Schwartz.
Both shows opened within a year of each other 40 years ago, though the best thing about Michael Strassen’s feisty, enjoyable revival at the Union is that he’s done it as though it just arrived in the post.
Gone the flower-power hippy-drippiness. And gone the clown nose and Superman T-shirt that made David Essex so ingratiating; but new name-to-watch Billy Cullum has a similar mop of curly dark hair. He arrives not through the expected illuminated doorway, but casually, on the other side of the stage, clutching his motorbike helmet.
Like him, the others wear casual clothes, rising from a spangled heap to “Prepare ye the Way of the Lord” and taking it in turns to lead blues and gospel pop songs, all backed with tremendous choral singing and delivered with a lot of fixed gazing into the middle distance.
Natalie Green leads “Day by Day” with ecstatic fervour, and little Babs Windsor-style Sophie Isaacs does a great blues job on “O Bless the Lord.” I’d forgotten how good other numbers are, too: Iwan Lewis makes a strong case for “All Good Gifts,” Caroline Hubbard digs deep in a candle-lit “By My Side,” and Madalena Alberto exhibits great jazziness and power in “Turn Back O Man.”
You just have to sit tight through the parable partying, but the cast are likeable, so there’s no problem watching lissom Jill Armour, tap-dancing Jeremy Batt and England football-team-shirted Daryl Armstrong goofing around, and Davis Brooks come on strong as Judas and John the Baptist (the Jeremy Irons roles), glaring handsomely like the late Simon MacCorkindale in a television soap.
There’s excellent musical direction by Michael Bradley, a good four-piece band hidden away in the corner, and some witty, unscripted musical allusions to Les Misérables, A Chorus Line and even Into the Woods.