Previously, I’ve seen four other productions by 9th Hour Theatre Company. All of them had excellent scripts, terrific direction, good and often great acting, and first-rate technical aspects (sets, costumes, lighting, music). So I was looking forward to seeing their production of the 1971 musical Godspell. Sadly, I was disappointed.
Godspell is a series of vignettes, most of them based on parables attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. The actors play Jesus, John the Baptist, Judas Iscariot, and Jesus’s followers. They also act out the parables. The play culminates in Jesus’s crucifixion. Notably, His resurrection isn’t portrayed. According to the author, Stephen Schwartz, the play ends without showing the resurrection because “Godspell is about the formation of a community which carries on Jesus’ teachings after He has gone. In other words, it is the effect Jesus has on the others which is the story of the show, not whether or not He Himself is resurrected.” The music often uses the lyrics of Christian hymns, set to modern music. The most popular song from Godspell is the hummable “Day By Day”.
9th Hour’s production of Godspell, helmed by artistic director Jonathan Harris, is adapted for Ottawa in 2018. Their goal is to achieve contemporary relevance. I think they are successful. Harris uses a clever device as the springboard for each parable: a newspaper held aloft by one of the actors as the actor shouts “Headline!” and recites a recent news headline.
I particularly enjoyed the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable about doing good deeds in secret (lots of amusing miming of taking selfies to self-promote one’s charitable acts!), and the parable of the rich man whose soul was demanded of him (great mugging by the actor playing the rich guy!). The vaudeville schtick near the end of Act 1 (“It’s All For the Best”) was a hoot.
Harris is well-served by three of his actors: Tom Charlebois, Adam Moscoe, and Jacob Segreto. Charlebois is a very convincing alcoholic vagrant, as well as a fiery John the Baptist and an empathetic Jesus. Moscoe and Segreto both have stage presence and are good communicators – an important skill in a play in which words are so important. I’d last seen Segreto in 9th Hour’s Prodigal Son, in which he excelled as Young Peter. Segreto is in Grade 7. He’ll go far if he continues in theatre! A fourth actor – Sylvain Bouchard – is a commanding presence on stage; his stage experience (Bouchard performs with Propeller Dance Company too) is evident in Godspell.
Unfortunately, the rest of the 13-person ensemble cast range from adequate to amateurish. We see some sign of talent – a lovely singing voice or a silly mannerism – but the next moment there’s a clumsy movement or inaudible speech.
Audibility is a problem, as was some annoying feedback from the sound system. All of the cast wear mics. Even so, it’s hard to understand many of the actors. This is particularly true whenever one if them sings solo. The five-piece band frequently drowns out the singer. Vocal projection and stage singing are tough. I’m surprised that 9th Hour wasn’t able to find more actors with these skills.
Another annoying technical problem was the lighting. The floodlights at stages left and right are often turned on at high intensity. They light the stage, but they also shine into the audience’s eyes for those seated near the aisles.
I have a bit of advice for 9th Hour. On opening night, the ushers let latecomers into the theatre for the first 80 minutes of Act 1. This disturbed the rest of the audience and possibly distracted the actors. If it’s venue policy to permit latecomers to enter the theatre, at any time during a performance, I suggest that 9th Hour insert several pauses into Act 1 during which the ushers could show late patrons to their seats.
There are pre-show discussions most days on one of three topics: “Bad news, ‘fake news’, what’s the good news?”, “Give to the poor! But will the poor always be among us?”, and “Love your enemies! But how?”. Information about these discussions can be found here.
After every performance, the cast asks for donations for the Innercity Arts Program which provides a safe and supportive environment for Ottawa’s street-involved youth to engage in the arts community.
Godspell is at the Centrepointe Studio Theatre until March 17 The performance starts at 7:30 pm and is approximately 170 minutes long including a 20-minute intermission. Information and tickets at 9th-hour.ca.