Rebecca Varidel
19th Oct 2022

CONFESSION: I have never seen GODSPELL on the stage before although I've seen literally 100s and 100s of musicals. Because the original Godspell was just a bit before my time. This new production of Godspell at Hayes Theatre celebrates 50 years since Godspell first opened in Sydney, since the original Australian Godspell cast recording, and since Australian Colleen Hewitt made the Top 40 Pop Charts with Godspell hit song Day By Day.

This seminal rock musical was first conceived by then university student John-Michael Tebelak who wanted to spread a joyful message, the musical history books tell us. And when Stephen Schwartz composed the music, Godspell uplifted him to the youngest ever person to have three musicals on Broadway at the same time.

Godspell is one of the few musicals that its first cast members helped to create - the book The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical reveals. Most performers rehearse a new musical work with a written script. Godspell’s actors were rehearsing with parables and Bible phrases that were brought in by the show’s conceiver and director Tebelak and essentially emerged from an improvisational process.

Given that rich creative history, Godspell seems all the more ripe for a talented reimagining by the new production's creative team - led by Director Richard Carroll and Musical Director (and performer, multi-instrumentalist) Victoria Falconer.

And reimagined it has been, to the Bethnal Green Working Men's Club in London complete with booze, KitKats, piano and pole dancing pole, AND its community - which in this case includes not just the Godspell cast but also yes - us the audience! The intimacy of Hayes Theatre allows this to meld, and without too many spoilers, the performers first enter down the aisle through the audience, and then often engage us. Our audience participation is more than singing a few bars in a show tune.

The term performers was chosen carefully. Not just actors, singers, dancers. By God move over triple threats. This all star cast are quadruplets. They sing, they act, they dance and then each play multiple musical instruments.

Looking at the original 70s musical movie YouTubes of Godspell, the costumes have a bit of a whimsical and definitely flower power hippy theme. Some sense of that comes through here at Hayes, but in a more erudite and grown up yet still playful way. JC (played by she/her Billie Palin) wears a sparkling ABBA inspired white jumpsuit, and sometimes cape. The fringed Palin definitely has a rock chic look. The glittering heart on her chest, carries through thematically to the others. There are lots of very clever techniques some obvious, although be sure to look closely for all those clever subtleties - in the costumes (Angela White), the set (Emma White), the lighting (Peter Rubie). Rubie's lighting is dramatic, at times sparse which is brave.

Choreography is often an Achilles heel of musical theatre, I reckon. Even in the big productions. But not here. Special mention for the fabulous choreography which cleverly draws on dance history from different eras in a light hearted, playful, even carefree way, adding impact to the fun and joy of the show. I particularly loved the synchronised swimming send up, the slow mos, the disco dancing and the chair walk. Importantly, Sally Dashwood gives us dance and movement that fits. Fits with the music, costumes, staging and feel. It's a rare talent.

The professional cast are given equal billing and rightly so. Starring Stefanie Caccamo, Jeremi Campese, Gillian Cosgriff, Mae Le Cowell, Victoria Falconer, Alfie Gledhill, Abe Mitchell, Gus Noakes, Chaya Ocampo, Billie Palin, Quinton Rich, Jane Watt. Each has a moment or two in the spotlight, with a solo or more. Abe Mitchell opens the show for us, with a few notes on the piano and that beautiful tune Prepare Ye before being joined by the cast in chorus. There are quite a few others who have a go on that piano I must say, including a marvellously entertaining duet.

If you didn't know the story, it's a little way into the show before we hear Billie Palin actually called by her name Jesus Christ. She is dynamic, powerful, controlled and exudes authority in a Divine sort of way, yet also gifts us humanly whimsy, humour and cabaret kinks. When she dons sunglasses as a security guard to Heaven, I felt I was being given the icey once over by a Kings Cross nightclub bouncer. No I don't have false boobs.

That's what I loved best about this show, its imaginative twists and turns, contemporary spins (was that a few bars from Playschool that I heard?) and Aussie injections. This is ONE of the best productions I've ever enjoyed (declaration of bias from Richard Carroll fan club). OK this is THE BEST production I've ever seen. I truly loved loved loved it. It's smart, thoughtful, funny, entertaining, superbly interesting and deeply satisfying. Every moment keeps you on the edge of your chair with a smile on your face and a smile in your heart.

"In 1971, the original production of Godspell had the subtitle: 'A musical based upon the Gospel according to St Matthew' - but this show is far more than a re-telling of the Biblical story of Jesus. It asks the question: 'if a messenger spreading those same ideas of compassion, humility and forgiveness were to arrive in a society that looks like ours today, and those ideas were embraced and acted on by people in our community - what kind of impact would they have?" explains Carroll.

Whoever you are, whatever you believe, this is a truly wonderful show, with glorious stories and messages.

It's more than a bit crazy. It's more than a bit funny. There's loads and loads of laughter and joy. Yes JOY just like Tebelak imagined.

Yet beyond all that, this production truly shines its entertainment light with superb musicality, vocal and instrumental excellence - glorious harmonies, some sessions in acapella, and all those musical instruments. There are so many they're listed in the program against each performer. Victoria Falconer plays 9 of the 40: Kawai K400 upright piano, Nord Electro 6HP73 keyboard, Moog theremini, Sonola 96-bass piano accordion, Violin (Germany 1923, reconditioned by The Violineri, Melbourne), Mussehl & Westphal musical saw, Tokai Gakki chromaharp, Laser harp, Prince (Paisley Park) custom-made Reo concert tambourine. Without giving away any secrets, it's worth going just for one of her keyboard performances alone.

Until 6 November at Hayes Theatre.


Coming up for Gershwin fans, Michelle Guthrie Presents Nice Work If You Can Get It at Hayes Theatre from 18 November. You know the tunes, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, Someone To Watch Over Me, Fascinating Rhythm, S’ Wonderful, But Not for Me, Lady Be Good, I’ve Got a Crush on You and more... Book now, as Hayes Theatre shows always sell out quickly.