Mission almost accomplished

Kidnapping for Jesus (Underground Productions)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

August 26 – September 3

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Josh Bonnett and Robert Cooper’s religious satire musical “Kidnapping for Jesus” begins with a straight-jacketed Conor Ensor centre-stage, swaying to the gentle sounds of nature, a hint to the audience of how things are going to play our for the show’s Reverend Craig Helshere consequent to his musical mission, under Jesus’ direction, to save sinners through song.

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With wife April-May (Hannah Crowther) and her brother Olly (Alex Smith) as sidekick, the Reverend sets out to divinely cure lost-soul vices using this in conjunction with some more traditional methods of coercion. And so heroin addict Peter Paranoid (Alexander Sullivan), recreational stoner Willow (Melanie Bolovan) and songbird Stacey (Ellie Gale) who is corrupted by the demons of gluttony, find themselves captive.

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The result is a world premiere work that includes some very funny scenes, heightened often by use of mine to account for the simple, restricted staging but revealing the need to account for audience laughter in pacing. It’s not all mirth though with some political commentary making appearance in the title song’s suggestion that ‘those who push their God on everyone need to step out of the Dark Ages’. Much of the physical comedy comes courtesy of Ensor, however, it is Crowther’s performance that steals the show. As the Reverend’s subordinate, vacuous wife (she can only rhyme words with the same word), she is appropriately over-the-top in every instance, tittering about with permanently-plastered smile.

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The show’s songs are another highlight, varied in melody and clever in lyrics, but indulgent in frequency and inconsistent inclusion. Act Two numbers work most effectively, growing out of plot rather than breaking up the action and include memorable numbers like ‘Poor Old Marijuana’. It is unfortunate they are not always given justice in delivery from timid singers who lack the power and presence required to really bring them to life… apart from Alexander Sullivan whose vocal performance not only stands above all others but highlights the comparative deficiencies of those with whom he duets.

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“Kidnapping for Jesus” is an ambitious venture, as perhaps is any musical for an independent theatre group, as part of a determined 2016 program from the University of Queensland’s resident theatre company. It represents the beginning of something that could easily be shaped into something bigger and better with work on pacing, which drags a little toward intermission as Stockholm-syndromed Peter falls for April’s sister ‘Science Girl’ nurse June-July (Louella Baldwin) and is affected by the lack of judicious song selection. And as a new musical, it should still be championed as part of ensuring that new works continue to entertain and engage eager theatre audiences.

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