claire tizzard, allison jollimore, ben feltmate & dana rhyno. photo by alexandra moir.
On Sunday Afternoon I attended closing day of St. Nicholas Anglican Church in Tantallon’s premier musical production of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, performed by a talented group of young actors called The Nickelodeons.
This production of Godspell is the perfect example of why I believe it is so important to step out of the professional realm of theatre when the opportunity is presented to you because often the experiences you encounter in the community are exhilarating, inspiring and refreshing. I cannot overstate how wonderful it is to see so much joy, enthusiasm and commitment bursting out of the performers on stage; it is truly infectious, especially in a production like Godspell which is rooted so ardently in the ideas of play.
The ensemble is led with charisma and exuberance by Ben Feltmate as Jesus who throws every ounce of energy into every single moment he is onstage. His large, sharp, specificity of movement and facial expression are perfectly suited for this style of theatre. Yet, his delightful clownish earnestness snaps vividly into intense fear that resonates naturally and effectively during the scenes surrounding the Passion of Christ. Other wonderful performances include Nick Cox as Judas/John the Baptist, who makes a strong straight man for Feltmate to play off of, Joe McAllister’s gorgeous rendition of “All Good Gifts,” Dana Rhyno’s sassy soul in “Bless the Lord” and Zach Ford’s comic timing as the Jester.
There are some wonderful moments from director Debra Forsyth Smith, especially the dramatic ones at the end surrounding the crucifixion, which are powerfully evocative. I particularly loved Taylor Owens’ jubilant choreography which the entire cast executed beautifully. The addition of the powerhouse musicians, especially Matt Schofield on drums, created a nice tension between the biblical stories being presented against the backdrop of Schwartz’s more modern scope of music.
The most famous Canadian cast of Godspell was the Toronto Cast of 1972 which included young Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas and Martin Short, who would grow to become part of the foundation upon which Canada’s indigenous comedy (Improv and sketch) community was built. Thus, the building of the community and the shared learning and teaching of skills, stories and ideas of Christ through play was almost an analogy for the development of the comedy community in Canada, where a band of clowns converged around one who showed leadership and learned to create enduring art through shared skills, stories and ideas taught through play.
The Clown Concept in Godspell has a multitude of different possibilities from celebrating the innocence of these stories to attempting to showcase their absurdity and inherent contradiction and everything in between. I wanted Forsyth Smith to be clearer with the way that her clowns interacted with the parables and the songs as to why it was important for Jesus and his followers to be portrayed as clowns and what the relationship was in this production between their Vaudevillian antics and the messages they were trying to bring forth. This is a difficult show to direct because the answers are not in the text and at times Schwartz has placed seemingly opposing ideas within the same moment, such as when Jesus tells of the people being divided between those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven and those condemned (rather callously) to Hell, followed promptly by a song about prodigals beseeching “Come sing about love.” What is being said here? Is there a connection between those sent to Hell being given a chance for reprieve? Are the prodigals reminding Jesus of his earlier teachings of forgiveness and love? Is Schwartz trying to illuminate this contradiction for further discussion? I don’t think there are any wrong answers, but the musical tightens up in its ability to clearly share its unique concept with the audience.
Of course, often in Church musicals made up of those who volunteer their time and young people of varying theatrical experience, the show’s “concept” is far less important than the task of getting a musical up on its feet. Yet, since this production is so uniformly strong and with a director and an ensemble that show great proficiency and promise I think that they can handle musical theatre’s more complex facets and that they have the potential, with a little more experience and time, to produce musicals of professional calibre in Tantallon and this is really exciting.
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