Review by Sam Waite
Phillip Bliss, a composer conductor and performer of gospel music, perhaps made his biggest impact on the genre with “It Is Well with My Soul”, a composition with lyrics by Horatio Spafford. Aiming to explore the life of a man so devoted to his faith that these contributions are what he is still remembered for, Gareth Hides’ musical, also titled It Is Well with My Soul, tells tales of Bliss’s life and career, including the introducing of its titular work. For one night only at The Other Palace, the downstairs Studio welcomed this new work with open arms, while upstairs a group of duplicitous teens were opening themselves in less chaste fashion.
We meet Bliss as he is about to be discharged from the army, his draft notice terminated as the conflict is rapidly reaching its conclusion. Home with his wife Lucy, the pair waste no time in taking Phillip’s gospel quartet on a ill-fated tour before Lucy talks a music publisher into taking on her husband, who has returned from his military service certain that his true calling is to his gospel music. While his status grows, and opportunities for non-faith-based work offer temptations, Phillip and Lucy meet an array of characters, including time spent with eventual collaborator Spafford, as well as his wife and their young children.
Admirable though it is to centre a story around a man whose faith was at the heart of every decision in both his private and professional lives, it’s difficult not to question whether this was the right subject matter for a full-length stage production. Hides’ script finds brief moments of humour, but there’s a limpness to much of the plot that suggests a lack of decisiveness around what events are most central to the story. Powerful moments such as the mass hysteria of a city-wide fire, and the tragic death of multiple children, are robbed of much of their impact by how much meandering conversation and trite almost-conflict have littered the build-up.
The cast of eight perform well, with most switching seamlessly between multiple roles - granted, this leaves Adam Stone and Karina Markham’s work as the Blisses to carry much off the overarching story. While the pair are vibrant and enjoyable onstage, the lack of real conflict in their lives as we see them leaves them with little of consequence to do, making Phillip in particular seem fairly one-dimensional. Stone sings nicely, but his character begins and ends at general goodness, so any worry that he might abandon his calling for more financially secure employment is quickly forgotten.
Alongside real-life Bliss compositions, Hides provides original musical numbers, finding particular success with the frantic “The Fire” and Lucy’s “That's My Phil”. The numbers suffer from a similar problem as the script, with their purpose sometimes unclear when there is neither emotion high enough nor decisions complex enough to justify an entire song. During many songs, the best place to look is at BSL interpreter Sarah Hides, who matches the cast’s energy beautifully, providing a fully engaging show for any members of the audience less able to enjoy the audio elements of the evening.
There are the beginnings of something powerful and moving in It Is Well with My Soul, but more time is needed to pull together the disparate pieces. Shelley Dring’s choreography is solidly used and brings out some impactful moments during the musical numbers, but the difficulty of doing so in the Studio’s limited space is not unnoticed. Agora Rencsenyi’s costumes help to establish the time period and help to immerse the audience where little scenic design opportunities are afforded to the production. David Robinson and Beck Rodda co-direct the production, making use of the space’s multiple entrances to create the illusion of movement, occasionally covering up the awkwardness of scenes ending and beginning with no indication of where or when we now are.
There is much to admire in It Is Well with My Soul, but little to adore at this stage. While religious and historical stories have long had their place in the world of musical theatre, the particular period of Bliss’ life – not to mention the confusingly truncated role of Spafford, whose role is essential but severely under-written – may simply not be exciting or dramatic enough for over two hours of theatrical storytelling. As dedicated to Bliss as the man himself was to his religious exploits, a shift in focus – whether wider or more insular – may serve future performances a stronger sense of clarity.
To keep up with future productions of It Is Well with My Soul, visit https://www.itiswellmusical.com
Photos by Stuart Leeds