by Stephen Schwartz
Uncle Randy Productions
2300 Lonsdale, North Van
604-984-4484 or 604-980-7942
My first experience of Godspell was the Uncle Randy production in 1998. Directed by Richard Berg and choreographed by Shelley Stewart Hunt, the same principals responsible for this Uncle Randy remount, it blew me away. The sheer enthusiasm of a talented young cast, the constant whirl of movement, great dancing and good singing are all trademarks of the Uncle Randy musical. This is a non-Equity company that can always be depended upon for high quality, high energy work.
This new production has many of the same very positive qualities. The large cast of attractive young performers features some wonderful dancing and fine singing, especially in chorus. And the four-piece band led by musical director Courtenay Ennis is terrific.
But I experienced the show very differently this time, and I think it must have to do with the way Christian evangelism has become so firmly associated with the political right-wing. I don’t remember really even registering last time the shrill, scolding, heavy-duty preaching that is the show’s primary content. Maybe I was naïve, but in 1998 it seemed innocent to me. Not now.
Each scene and song is basically a New Testament episode or parable preached to his young disciples by JC himself. Roger Haskett is an attractive actor with a nice voice. And I know he’s supposed to be the Son of God. But his Jesus is awfully smug and self-righteous. More than once he reminded me of Stephen Harper.
What made me even more uncomfortable was the way the other actors were directed, especially in the mostly upbeat first act (the second act, leading to the crucifixion, is way more downbeat), to respond to him ecstatically, jumping around, yelping for joy, with goofy God-stricken grins on their faces. Combined with their self-consciously ironic-cutesy performance style, it seemed to me like something the Young Radical Republicans for Jesus might put on for the congregation on a Sunday morning in Bible Belt America.
When I was able to separate the presentation from the content and the performers from their characters, I found, as usual, a lot to enjoy. Two of the ensemble numbers are real knockouts, “Bless the Lord” in the first act, led by the dynamic Jyla Davis, and Dan Jabour and company’s “We Beseech Thee” in act two. And I just loved the dancing.
Although I’m a confirmed secularist, I’m moved by genuine religious feeling. My favourite paintings are medieval Annunciations. I’m an absolute sucker for Dostoevsky. But save the preaching for some other congregation.