Friday, January 25, 2013

Review: (Montreal) Godspell

(photo credit: Tristan Brand)

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But we can build a city of man

by Caitlin Murphy

So goes the chorus to a song specifically written for the movie version of Godspell (though often since incorporated into stage versions as well).   And so goes the inspiration for the name and mandate of a new Montreal theatre company currently foisting itself into the fray with a production of the 1971 musical.  Beautiful City Theatre strikes me as that rare indie company that actually has its shit together.

Which is partly why I feel torn reviewing Godspell.  I loved it and hated it.  And the distinction lies quite neatly along that divide that musical theatre often unwittingly draws – the play vs. the music.  In this case, the play (book by John-Michael Tebelak) is long, meandering, dull and pedantic.  The score (music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) is at turns joyful, sultry, stirring, foot-stomping, and haunting.

Basically, Godspell just doesn’t have much of a dramatic arc

At over 40 years old, I don’t think Godspell ages well.  The spirit and structure of the piece feel distinctly “of a (trippier) time”; its origins as a Master’s thesis, an experiment of sorts, are also clear, as the play feels more like an academic exercise than a coherent and moving piece of theatre.  Basically, Godspell just doesn’t have much of a dramatic arc, and it’s hard to sustain a play (or an audience’s attention) without one.  Based on the Gospel of Matthew, it’s essentially a series of ‘teaching moments’ strung together.  And there’s something about getting hit repeatedly with parables (almost invariably about a rich man who had two very different sons) and the associated onslaught of moral guidance that makes me sleepy.   Nobody really likes ‘getting told’ – not for too long anyway.  Another bare fact with the piece, for me at least, is that the religious content simply doesn’t resonate.  (that said, the climactic scene – a rare moment of showing story instead of telling it – is quite breathtaking (and will be absolutely stunning when the lighting mark is hit.)).

To evoke a theme of childhood innocence that governs director Calli Armstrong’s vision of the play, the stage is strewn with over-grown building blocks, stuffed animals, cardboard boxes covered in crayon drawings, and hung bed-sheets.  It felt eclectic, but confused.  The bulk of the action involves re-enacting those above-mentioned parables, and often the clowning, putting on of voices, game-playing and general acting like pre-schoolers became tedious. That kind of process-focused ensemble work often strikes me as super fun to roll around in, but not nearly as thrilling to watch.  Unrestrained whimsy and hijinks are endearing at first, but their charms evaporate quickly.  Clocking in at 2.5 hours with intermission (and a first act that almost hit the 1.5 hour mark), the play would also have been more palatable with some diligent editing. 

Leads Dane Stewart (as Jesus) and Elizabeth Conway (as Judas/John the Baptist) serve up powerhouse performances in their hefty vocal roles.

But here’s the rub: the music is Godspell’s salvation.  Familiar with the songs before attending, I was delighted to hear them brought to life with such passionate, strong voices and energetic, expert accompaniment.  Under the musical direction of David Terriault, the company’s singing chops are impressive across the board.  Leads Dane Stewart (as Jesus) and Elizabeth Conway (as Judas/John the Baptist) serve up powerhouse performances in their hefty vocal roles.  But all solos were uniquely striking; highlights included “Day by Day,” sung sweetly by Elyse Lewis, and “All Good Gifts,” rendered with heart-breaking humility by Laurent Bergeron.  The music, for me, was where the piece and its players were truly able to reveal their authenticity and artistry. 

The 5-piece band, expertly led by piano player David Terriault, was tight and delivered an impressively full sound.  Sadly though, half the members were kept hidden behind some of the set’s draped sheets.  Live music on stage is such a rarity, and clearly these boys were cookin’.  I peeked in on them as I left the theatre; it felt criminal that they had been kept from view.

Despite my qualms with the ‘play’ part of the play, I was impressed by Beautiful City as a new company and I’m glad they’re here.  Their mandate, their chutzpah, their organization…  I felt in the hands of a company with vision, integrity and staying power.  Putting on your first show at the Centaur Theatre speaks to a certain tenacity (though at 35 bucks a ticket, they may have overshot a bit).  I look forward to what Beautiful City Theatre’s talented construction crew builds next.

Godspell continues to February 2


  1. Hey there, just wanted to point out a little typo:

    It should be written David Terriault as the one leading the band on piano and not Alexandre Lafontaine. The latter was on the second keyboard (behind David) and on Guitar/Ukulele.

  2. Correction done. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.


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