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It is Well with My Soul at The Other Palace Studio

Philip Bliss (1838-1876) (Adam Stone) did not, at least as this production would have it, have the kind of fairytale turnaround story that certain religious folk like to hear. He wasn’t an alcoholic and didn’t have an addiction to drugs, and wasn’t having bedroom activity with anyone and everyone who wanted it, only to later undergo a Damascene conversion and become a member of the Church. The show doesn’t have anything to say about where he got his Christian faith from, with the narrative launching straight into the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), though one can infer that he was brought up in a religious home and never deviated from the faith of his parents.

It is Well with My Soul at The Other Palace StudioThe costumes have a distinct nineteenth-century look, and the occasional questionable American accent aside, the show is consistent in its focus on the characters’ devotion to their religion. This is sometimes overdone, with a few of the musical numbers barely disguised as church music. It is nice to hear such lyrics being given the musical theatre treatment – the celebrated evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, an ardent atheist, counts himself amongst those who enjoy a good hymn. But in this context, they do little if anything to advance the storyline, and the spoken dialogue already makes it crystal clear that these are people who very much believe the Bible to be a guidebook for their lives.

Bliss’ wife, Lucy (Katrina Markham) comes across as someone who liked to pray about everything, even things her Bible already expressly forbids. Bliss’ faith is occasionally naïve at best and borderline offensive at worst: having been drafted into the Union Army, he is later stood down, believing it was “a sign from God” that he wouldn’t be sent to the frontlines after all, therefore implying that it was also God’s will that others should be, risking life and limb. I suppose the production, having clear intentions to promote the Christian faith (copies of St John’s Gospel were supplied to the audience on departure from the theatre), does well to present characters ‘warts and all’.

Although laden with religious content, this is at heart a ‘triumph over adversity’ story, with local attorney Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) (Henry Leigh Hunt), a good friend of Bliss, writing a poem which later became the lyrics to a hymn composed by Bliss, “It is Well With My Soul”. The poem was written following the sinking of a ship mid-Atlantic in November 1873 killing 226 people, including all four of Spafford’s daughters – his wife Anna (Joy-Anna Gooch) survived. The audience does not meet the children, and I venture to suggest the emotional impact of Spafford’s losses might have been more pronounced if we had, for instance, seen them at play, or getting dressed for school, or at the dinner table.

The female characters are somewhat underwritten, with much stage time instead given to Moody’s evangelistic proclamations and either Bliss or Moody’s second-in-charge, Ira Sankey (Arjan Binnema) singing a religious melody. There’s a good attempt at mixing things up a little, music-wise – there are some livelier musical numbers, a couple of which come with choreography. I have no idea if Moody would have approved of dancing in a religious setting.

Sarah Hides, the show’s British Sign Language interpreter, was very animated and enthusiastic, and for those who did not require BSL, the sound quality during the performance was, at least from my vantage point, utterly perfect in the sense that every lyric and every line was crystal clear. (It was sometimes too good, with Bliss’ heavy breathing reverberating around the studio space.) More of a focus on Spafford than Bliss would have made for more riveting viewing: the former had invested heavily in property and construction, much of which literally went up in smoke thanks to the Great Chicago Fire.

Proceeding at a moderate pace, the show would doubtless appeal most to those already of a religious disposition, who would find much affirmation in the beliefs of these Chicagoans. I am reminded of a movie I saw decades ago, in which a plane encountered severe difficulties, and the possibility of crashing suddenly became very real. A pious family took to prayer. They were asked if what they were doing was really going to be much help. They answered that it wasn’t doing any harm.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Set against the rebuilding era after the American Civil War, It is Well with My Soul brings a moving story of struggle, resilience, and hope to the stage. Follow Philip and Lucy Bliss as they navigate life in the bustling city of Chicago, establishing new connections with lawyer Horatio Spafford, innovative producer George Root, and the spirited preacher D L Moody.

As Philip’s reputation as a hymn writer and soloist grows, he grapples with the ethical challenges brought on by success. When the devastating Great Chicago Fire and the sorrowful sinking of the Ville du Havre thrust them into turmoil, how will they find hope amidst despair?

Adam Stone – Philip Bliss
Katrina Markham – Lucy Bliss
Richard Mellion – D L Moody
Matt Sunners – George Root
Henry Leigh Hunt – Horatio Spafford
Gareth Hides – Walter Guest
Arjan Binnema – Ira Sankey
Joy-Anna Gooch – Clara Young, Anna Spafford

Directors: David Robinson and Beck Rodda
Book, Music and Lyrics: Gareth Hides
Original Hymns: Philip Bliss
Lyrics for It is Well with My Soul: Horatio Spafford
Originally Produced by Kerygma 180
Musical Supervisor: Mark Baker
String Orchestrations: Dominic Ryland-Jones
Song Production, Mixing and Mastering: Samuel Green
Choreographer: Shelley Dring
Graphic Designer: Agota Rencsenyi
Artwork: Katie Binnema
Technical Consultant and Sound Design: Adam Waller for Big Door Broadcast
Marketing Consultant: Lola Ortiz
Costume Supervisor: Jonathan Mroczynski
Lucy’s Bustle Skirt made by Elizabeth Hindse
BSL Interpreter: Sarah Hides

It is Well with My Soul
13 January 2024

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