Sunday, 7 November 2010

"Dying is easy; comedy is hard."

When I was fifteen, a friend invited me to go see the movie Godspell. On reflection, it was an odd film choice for two young Unitarians, but my Anglo-Saxon was rusty and I wasn't all that sure what I was getting into. I was swept away by the joy, hilarity, pathos, and infectious music. I was so exhilarated when I emerged from the cinema, that I walked all the way home, despite the darkness and lateness of the hour.

Over the years, I had the opportunity to view the stage production several times: an exuberant version by a clever company that normally specialized in improv; a polished version by one of those touring "Broadway" companies; an earnest professional version in Toronto that no doubt hoped to recapture the magic of the almost mythical Toronto production that featured Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Thomas, Martin Short and Jayne Eastwood;
and the inevitable amateur church version that got by on heart and charm.

Both my daughters got hooked on it in turn. Elder daughter was especially enamoured of it at age five and had to be gently talked out of a Godspell-themed birthday party. (I wasn't quite sure how I would explain that one to the other parents, and what games would we play? "Let's electrocute Jesus in the back yard, kids!" We went with Snow White.) I still remember searching for something in the stacks in the downtown branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library when younger daughter was a toddler and hearing her singing wordlessly in her stroller. When I stopped to listen, I realized it was "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord."

Younger daughter has remained steadfastly loyal to Godspell ever since, so when we learned that Canterbury High School was putting it on this month, we moved swiftly to procure tickets for the matinée.

Canterbury High School, for those of you unfamiliar with Hades, is the high school devoted to the arts in the public school system. Students come from across the Ottawa-Carlton School District to attend and must audition to gain admittance into Fine Arts, Drama, Dance, Literary Arts, or Music (or, I suppose, to a combination of the aforementioned). So this wasn't going to be your average zits-and-all high school performance.

And it wasn't. The set, meant to be an abandoned and drained outdoor swimming pool, covered with graffiti and brimming with trash, was student-designed and effective. The musicians, unseen backstage, played beautifully at the right volume and on cue. The performers sang well, knew their lines and were unfazed by slight mishaps such as the occasional feedback boom or a lost shoe during a dance number.

There were some odd directorial choices, forced, I suspect, by the need to involve as many students as possible. As is standard in many middle and high schools, there were two casts. We were seeing the "New Testament" cast whose final performance this was. About half a dozen dancers were brought in to add extra menace to the opening scene, the questioning by the Pharisees sequence, and the interlude where Jesus is tempted by Satan. This has been traditionally performed by the cast members only and I found it distracting. I imagine the parents of the dancers would passionately disagree.

The oddest choice of all was having the other so-called "Old Testament" cast appear at the foot of the stage, dressed quite elegantly in shades of black and grey with the women in heels, to bear away the body of Jesus. Nice bonding, but a bit bewildering to those not closely involved.

It took me some thinking afterward to pinpoint what wasn't quite working for me. Then it occurred to me: the funniness was missing. The other productions of Godspell I've seen have been hilarious; I've hurt myself giggling. This production had humour but it got hidden in asides that sounded more like teenage wisecracks than jokes.

Godspell is a musical, but for character actors. These kids are still too young to carry off the breathless vaudevillian pace of the script, and way too reluctant to surrender their prettiness to the clown characters they're supposed to embody. This robbed the more burlesque moments of the play of their innocence.

Let me give you an example: "Turn Back O Man" is a Diamond Lil/saloon-type number. In the touring Broadway production I saw years ago, the girl assigned to sing this was a plump and uninhibited performer dressed, like the rest of the cast, in an outrageous fluffy concoction with layers of knee-socks and a pair of battered old sneakers. She threaded an endless feather boa throughout the throng in the packed lower orchestra while treating individual audience members to Mae West one-liners. When she made her way back to the stage, she glanced up into the balcony and gave a little wave. I was in the balcony. Everybody waved back. It was so over-the-top, so literally a burlesque, that everyone felt comfortable and included in the joke. Her teen-aged counterpart in the Canterbury production was clad in a sort of striped body stocking with a little skirt and artfully torn leggings with bare feet. Instead of Mae West, we were leaning uncomfortably toward Lolita. Many of the female cast-members were dressed in variations of colourful tunics with leggings and bare feet or runners. They didn't look like clowns; they looked like something out of anime or manga.

"You've got to be pretty in the city of God"? Well, you've got to be a bit flaky in a production of Godspell

Still, the farewells at the Last Supper were genuinely moving and the Finale carried the full dramatic punch.

I may be giving the impression that the young actors were incompetent; let me assure you, they were not. They let them into this school for a reason. One girl, though, truly stood out. Her name is Natasha Mumba. This lady has the presence and the power and the chops. She can sing, she can take control of the stage and she has the makings of one fine character actor. Look out.

Younger daughter's reaction to Canterbury's Godspell? She sat there trembling slightly for a few moments after the lights came up, gazing down at her programme.
"I loved it!" she declared, finally. Spellbound.


Volly said...

Godspell was a staple of our high school chorus in the 1970s. They tried to stage Jesus Christ Superstar one year and met with protests from parents who said it was anti-semitic. Nobody ever objected to Godspell. Go figure.

I'm a firm believer in educating kids on the Bible from the standpoint of literature -- our culture and language abound with snippets of scripture that everyone gets exposed to even if they never set foot in a church. Agree with theology or not, it's unfair to keep kids from understanding these references. Godspell does an excellent job in this regard.

JoeinVegas said...

Nice that you can take the kids to live performances