Godspell (2012)

This production was a creative challenge from the outset. The club’s usual venue was closed for renovations, and the previous production had been mounted at a local primary school.

This time, the show was to be performed in a church – which makes sense due to the nature of the show – but that meant that traditional performing space was unavailable.

How to utilise the aisles, the choir stalls, and the pulpit? Sure, we could have restricted the show to the available floor space but that seemed too low key. The church was a great venue – how to use a place where people congregate in a new way?

I designed this poster, inspired by the original Broadway poster by David Edward Byrd

For me, Godspell was a musical with a great concept and wonderful music, but I couldn’t get the images from the film out of my mind – the 1960s hippy costumes, and make up and behaviours. I spent a lot of time trying to think of a new way of presenting it.

Finally I hit upon the idea of making it a show within a show – and set our version of the musical inside Bedlam hospital in Victorian England. The concept was that we were looking at a range of inmates who had either entered the hospital voluntarily, or had been sent there due to a Victorian misunderstanding of mental health.

The stage area was the “cell” and the chorus became Victorian characters who were curious observers. In Victorian times, “madhouses” charged locals to enter and stare at the inmates. It seemed to me that we could use this idea as a framing for the show. The main characters in the show were therefore “inmates”, and each performer researched various mental illness issues to incorporate into their characters.

This may make it sound heavy going, but that wasn’t the intention. Instead it became a show about people being misunderstood, and needing help, or assistance, or leadership. That seemed to fit a musical with positive messages about how we can live with and support each other.

Bedlam was the alternative name for St Mary Bethlehem Hospital. Seemed appropriate.

One other note – to create the idea that this was perhaps an alternative version of the Gospel story, and an alternative version of London, we tapped into imagery of Victorian Steampunk. Of course, steampunk is a literary genre, but we borrowed that look and it seemed to work well.

The cast and crew worked really hard on this production and while on paper it seemed like an odd risk (I’ll never forget the costumer’s facial expression when I mentioned steampunk) the production was a great success, and a personal creative favourite of mine. Neil worked wonders with the music and Lisa, as usual, created wonderful choreography which helped make this show so memorable.

GODSPELL by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz
Produced by ACAOS | Director Thomas Gemmell
Musical Director Neil Thompson | Choreographer Lisa Kennedy.

Below is a review of the show from the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser on March 16, 2012, written by Colin Scougall.

I have to admit to having a few reservations about going to see Airdrie & Coatbridge Amateur Operatic Society’s ‘Godspell’. It was to be set in a Victorian Mental Asylum and performed in New Wellwynd Parish Church in Airdrie. Until recently a ‘traditional’ operatic society, ACAOS were now attempting an avant-garde production of a less popular show in a new venue – a risk to say the least. However, thanks to teamwork, hard work, a multi talented cast, crew and production team – they pulled it off magnificently.

As the house lights went down and the cast mingled amongst the audience, the scene was all too realistically set – quite scarily actually. The Victorian style costumes, wacky make-up and venue helped transport you to another place and time. Iain Campbell (John The Baptist/Janitor/Judas) opened the show singing unaccompanied and in perfect pitch with the catchy Prepare Ye, and by the time the band joined him and then the chorus, you knew you were in for a good night.

The 4 piece band, which actually sounded like a bigger ensemble, created an electric atmosphere and was conducted by the very capable Neil Thompson (who had conducted my big band a few times) so I knew the cast and musicians were in safe hands. I found myself surprised at how many tunes from this ‘sometimes very funky’ score that I knew and was humming them on the way home in the car.

Godspell was conceived and originally directed by John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz in 1970-71. It is based on The Gospel of Matthew, with the Society adeptly guiding the audience through the ‘greatest story ever told’ via the baptism, the parables and the passion. Iain Runciman played the lead role of Jesus, and his pleasant musical theatre singing style was ideal for the part.

One of this operatic society’s strengths is the quality of singers, and this was evident when they performed faultless harmonies in God Save the People and other chorus numbers. In fact, by three or four songs into the show I was witnessing something that would not be out of place at The Edinburgh Festival.

The cast of 21 were directed by Thomas Gemmell, and his brave ‘out of the box’ thinking saw the characterisations come to life. Two actors who maintained their characters so well during the show and added much to its flow were Steven Lambie (Jeffrey) and William Hunter Bishop (Herb). Worth noting also was the director’s clever use of minimal props to help create the different scenes.

Outstanding were Wendy McPike as Gilmer and Susan Campbell as Joanne – both not only great singers but talented actors who demonstrated impeccable comic timing. I for one would have paid the ticket money alone just to hear Susan’s top note in Bless The Lord My Soul.

Considering the space limitations, choreographer Lisa Kennedy did a fabulous job, and the vibrant dance movements which the cast clearly enjoyed doing were a pleasure to watch. It is also worth mentioning Kenneth Finnie who did a super job lighting the show, in particular the silhouette scenes which were well thought out.

Lynn Stewart (a former member of the Colin Scougall Theatre School) played Robin, and it was refreshing to see a young lady who has worked hard to earn her place as a ‘triple threat’ performer. Lynn’s uplifting rendition of Day By Day proved that she is not only a dancer who can act but a strong singer too.

The ragtime All For The Best number however is a tricky song with counter melodies but this was executed with style and perfection. During this number the cast looked like they were having a ball.

A highlight for me however was All Good Gifts performed by Jim Connell (Lamar). His powerful and charming vocals brought the biggest applause of the show up to that point. His articulation and delivery of this song was a musical theatre singing lesson to us all.

The high energy wah-wah guitar driven, full chorus number Light Of The World brought the first Act to a close all too soon, but as a musical beginning to Act 2 it warmed the audience immediately.

Kat Campbell (Sonia) suffered a technical problem in her opening number of Act 2, causing her mic to fail, but this did not spoil the enjoyment of Turn Back O Man. Her strong singing voice carried easily to the back of the church, and she was undeterred in her mission to make this a memorable performance. Kat is a former member of Monklands Youth Theatre whose ability as a performer has gone from strength to strength – a joy to watch. Later in the show the haunting By My Side showcased the talents of Wendy McPike (Gilmer) and Aimee McGuinness (Peggy) in two part harmony.

The second Act of this show is shorter and more solemn than the first since it has to deal with the Passion Scenes.  I found the “lashes” scene particularly disturbing – just as I do when I see this in the rival show Jesus Christ Superstar.

Godspell’ as performed by Airdrie & Coatbridge AOS was a show full of energy, and by the time the finale arrived the audience were left in no doubt that they had witnessed something special, a bit different to the norm, ambitious even. Judging from the applause, the audience approved of the show wholeheartedly. The society’s ambitious gamble paid off. Although not my favourite musical, it was undeniably done with style and polish as well as wonderful individual and collective performances.

Congratulations to ACAOS on another successful production, and I’m looking forward eagerly to your March 2013 show in the newly refurbished Airdrie Town Hall.

Colin Scougall
Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser
16 March 2012
Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser

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