Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
What’s brightly colored, lots of fun, and chock-full of wonderful singing and dazzling dancing?
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Mac-Haydn.
I just have four words of advice for you:
Go, go, go, go!
Joseph... is the earliest work by the man who now styles himself The Baron Lloyd-Webber that is available for performance. He just plain Andrew Lloyd Webber and barely 20 years old in 1968 when he and lyricist Tim Rice penned a little cantata based on the Old Testament story of Joseph for a boy’s school choir to perform at an assembly. His father, a prominent organist, thought the piece had potential and used his influence to get it performed again and recorded, this time in an expanded version combining the Colet Court Choir with a psychedelic rock band called The Mixed Bag. After the international success of Jesus Christ, Superstar Joseph... was trotted out, billed as a “sequel,” expanded some more, and eventually presented in London’s West End and on Broadway.
The version of Joseph... now available for performance is a quirky mixture of “cantata for boy sopranos” (parts now commonly sung by women and children) and big, silly production numbers, each a pastiche of an easily identifiable musical style. Its kind of like the bumblebee – it shouldn’t be able to fly but it does. Forty years on and Joseph... is still go-go-going.
If you are not familiar with the story I refer you to Genesis 37 & 39:1 - 46:7 (you can skip chapter 38 which is that difficult one about Onan and his seed) in your nearest handy Bible or Torah. In its original incarnation as a cantata, the purpose of the piece was to tell the story. Now its purpose is to entertain and the story does tend to get lost amidst all the singing and dancing. It’s a good story too – this being the Old Testament its full of jealousy and revenge with a dash of sex on the side – but unlike the story of Joseph’s father Jacob, who lied, cheated and stole to get what he wanted, Joseph actually succeeds in life, against terrible odds, through the wise and honest use of the talents G-d gave him.
As I searched for a parking space at the Mac, a car stopped in front of mine to let someone off close to the front door. I expected that this courtesy was being extended to an older person or someone with limited mobility. Imagine my surprise when the car door opened and out bounded a little girl of 8 or 9. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were alight and she ran in to the theatre just as fast as her legs would take her.
Twenty minutes later the curtain went up (metaphorically speaking) and there she was in the children’s chorus. The sparkle never went out of her eyes. Every moment she was on stage she was fully engaged – singing and dancing and having a ball – along with her seven young cohorts.
Not so many years ago that little girl was Kelly L. Shook, who makes her Main Stage directorial bow with this production. She is also the choreographer, a role she has performed successfully before, and since Joseph... is sung through the music, and the dancing, never stop.
The Mac-Haydn press release boasts of this year’s company’s prodigious dance skills, and Shook puts them all on display in course of this show. Joseph... is primarily an ensemble piece with all the actors, except Rich Krakowski as Joseph and Jennifer Bishop as the Narrator, playing at least two roles. The whole theatre is filled with light and color, thanks to Lighting Designer Andrew Gmoser and Costume Designer Jimm Halliday – the man for whose designs the word supercalifragilisticexpialadocious was undoubtedly coined – and perpetual, happy motion, thanks to Shook.
Bishop is a little bland as the Narrator, never really establishing a personality or a clear relationship to the children’s chorus, the other performers, or the audience. But she looks lovely and sings nicely.
Krakowski, on the other hand, is really a perfect Joseph. He has the right look, the right voice, and the ability to bring the character from the decidedly insufferable young “favorite son” to a mature political leader smoothly.
As Pharoah, Jason Whitfield sports an enormous pompadour and proves he has the gams to pull off a white spandex jumpsuit. His overall Elvis impression was a little tame, but his vocals were strong. I did catch my self piping up with at least one impulsive “bo-shee-waddy-wah” during his big number.
I am as happy as the next long-time Mac supporter to see David Bondrow back, but he is wasted here as Jacob and Potiphar. The former is not the kind of broadly comic role at which he excels, and neither role gives him a chance at a solo number. (WHY doesn’t Potiphar get to sing his own song??) This is the Cassie Syndrome – Bondrow has outgrown the chorus line and his voice and on stage persona are too powerful for him to go back.
Chris Cooke as Simeon solos on Those Canaan Days, Ryan Owens as Levi takes the lead on One More Angel in Heaven, and Jared Jacobs belts it out for the Benjamin Calypso. They all do a fine job, but these are three of the big, silly production numbers Lloyd Webber inserted to help provide more stage time for those eleven brothers and to expand the show to an (almost) acceptable length, and no matter how well sung and cunningly choreographed, they are ultimately time wasters. I also find One More Angel..., in which the brothers lie to their father about Joseph’s fate, to be rather distasteful.
Kellyn Uhl as Mrs. Potiphar (that shameless hussy!!) and the Apache Dance team of Wesley Urish and Andrea Doto handle the most daring dance solos, but Shook gives everyone who has a special move a chance to show off. The end result is an hour and a half of ebullient, youthful energy.
Okay, so, even with an intermission, all of Lloyd Webber’s silly production numbers, and Shook’s intrepid terpsichorean tricks, Joseph... still clocks in under 90 minutes. So some producer, no doubt back in the dark ages of disco, added a thing called The Mega Mix to the end. This means just when you think the show is over (and it is) it isn’t. You’ve got another ten minutes or so while the cast does a kind of frenetic fast-forward highlights reel of everything you’ve just seen. In case you have a really short short-term memory. At times it comes across as an endless, self-indulgent curtain call, which is unfortunate because there is a curtain call after the Mega Mix and the cast really deserves a rousing hand for their energetic performance. So be patient and don’t clap until AFTER the Mega Mix, or bring a pair of mittens to save your hands from getting sore.
If you are one of those people who hates big, bright, bouncy, happy musicals, you won’t like Joseph... but you probably figured that out a decade or so ago. For everyone else, buy a ticket, already!!
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs through June 21 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs just under two hours with one intermission. This really is one for the whole family - children as young as six will enjoy this show. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009