One of the many reasons for Jesus’ phenomenal success was the quality of his storytelling. After all, it’s much easier to understand moral messages when they’re couched in tales about tearaway sons, victims of crime, or even sheep versus goats.
And these are at the heart of Godspell, the musical that’s now over 40 years old. It’s built largely around the parables in St Matthew’s gospel, and Jesus and his exuberant followers bring a childlike sense of fun and adventure to this new teaching as they sing, dance and joke their way through stories that are punctuated by very grown-up sermons on the duties we owe each other, as well as the state.
It’s an intoxicating introduction for anyone new to the nitty-gritty of Christianity, but caused a sensation back in 1971 when it was first performed off-Broadway, complete with Jesus in clown make-up.
Conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak with a score by Stephen Schwartz, it’s been 43 years since Godspell was performed on the West End stage, though it was revived on Broadway in 2011.
Producer and musical director Russell Scott saw that revival in New York and was inspired to bring the show to London once again. As a result of his dedication, last night it was performed at the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue for a one-night-only charity performance in aid of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The show demands huge energy levels from its performers, who remain on stage throughout, and this entirely engaging cast maintain their bounce, fizz and sparkle for the full two and a half hours.
Many are recent stage or musical theatre school graduates, balanced with a smattering of more experienced performers like Andy Abraham as John the Baptist/Judas, and the majestic Zoe Tyler, whose voice takes the roof off the theatre in "Bless the Lord".
Stewart Clarke, tall, gorgeous and dressed in gleaming white, is a cheerfully charismatic Jesus – the man no woman is every going to get. Clarke has an impressive vocal range and his plaintive finale, as the crucified Christ sings: ‘"Oh God, I’m dying", is stunning. "All for the Best", the music hall-style song and dance routine he shares with John the Baptist is another standout scene, deftly choreographed by director Kenneth Avery-Clark.
The cast of followers aren’t meant to be the disciples as such, and keep their own names for the perfomance. Everyone gets a chance to step into the light, and it’s no surprise to see that newcomer Rob Houchen has just been cast as Marius in Les Miserables straight from training. His intriguing look and faultless, soaring voice in "All Good Gifts" mark him out as a rather special performer.
Sparkling Shekinah McFarlane also shines in "By My Side", with a beautiful lead vocal from Laura Darton in the musical’s most famous song, "Day by Day".
Kenneth Avery-Clark has done a brilliant job in staging this uplifting, one-off concert production, with the cast, band, the Maida Vale singers and an impressive ensemble from the American Musical Theatre Academy all packed on to the Lyric stage together.
And all credit to Russell Scott for his vision in making the whole thing happen, in aid of the Make-A-Wish foundation – which must surely be one of the charities Jesus himself would be delighted to support.