Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Thru March 29
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby St.
A few weeks back, my husband and I were invited to Episcopal High School’s production of South Pacific. We were game to go, albeit slightly trepidatious. But, we reasoned, a bad production of South Pacific is still South Pacific. It’s hard to completely screw up “Bali Hai” or “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.” Unfortunately, the same doesn’t hold true for all musicals, as we learned earlier this week. It turns out that a bad production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is really just, well, a bad production of Joseph. (Episcopal's South Pacific, I'm happy to report, was fantastic.)
Narrated by an unnamed character who serves as storyteller, Greek chorus and occasional prop, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s beloved musical is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of Jacob’s favorite son Joseph and his envious brothers. As recounted in the Book of Genesis, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and told their father he was dead. Plucky Joseph, however, was a hard worker with a knack for interpreting dreams, which gave him an in with both his first owner and later the Pharaoh of Egypt.
In many ways, the show and its history provide a window into the evolution of the Broadway musical. First penned in 1968 by Webber and Rice (who were 23 and 19 at the time) as a school cantata, Joseph was expanded and found a home among school groups, community theater companies and the like. Following the mega-success of Webber and Rice’s second collaboration, Jesus Christ Superstar!, Joseph was re-invented again in 1982 in a production that turned Laurie Beechman, who played the narrator, into a Broadway darling. Fast forward a decade, and Donny Osmond got into the act as the title character in a production that glittered and sparkled and traded in perkiness for pizzazz.
Which brings us to where we are today. Andy Blankenbuehler’s production for TUTS is a re-invention of a re-invention—he seems not to have bothered consulting the original source. The production is long on extra choruses and endless dance numbers, and desperately short on charm. Leads Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young (husband and wife in real life) are Exhibits A and B in the case against former “American Idol” contestants performing in musicals. Both of them boast Broadway credits, but neither can actually act, and their singing, filled with pop breathiness and little support, is iffy. DeGarmo punches out the Narrator’s songs like a step aerobics instructor, encouragingly pushing you along because yes, you can and will like this show. Lost in her hard-edged, over-enunciated singing is anything resembling range, emotion or connection to the story. Young, as Joseph, does little better. His singing is nasal and workman-like; his expressions seem canned and unnatural.
Ryan Williams, who sings the Pharaoh, provides both sharp comedic timing and a delightfully campy Elvis Presley impersonation in his featured songs, “Song of the King” and “Stone the Crows.” Pulling double duty as Joseph’s father, Jacob, and Potiphar, the wealthy Egyptian who buys Joseph as a slave, William Thomas Evans spans the range from beautifully lyric to spectacularly silly, singing “Potiphar” with precision and flair.
The real stars of the show, however, are Joseph’s brothers, who provide lovely harmonies, zaniness and plain good fun as they bound across musical genres: “One More Angel in Heaven,” (Western swing, helped along by Brian Golub’s portrayal of Reuben and lovely vocals by Ashley Peacock as Reuben’s Wife); “Those Canaan Days” (a French café number led by Paul Castree as Simeon); and “Benjamin Calypso,” with Max Kumangai’s Judah bringing the Island beat.
The fun of Joseph has always been its tongue-in-cheek lyrics and delightful romp through musical styles—it’s the product of two young men riffing on their favorite music. But as the show has grown and grown over the years, it’s lost that playfulness. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the 2015 Joseph to the 1968 original. But a revival, by its very nature, begs a comparison – what was done differently, how has this incarnation aided the material? Les Misérables is a different show without the barricade, and saying that doesn’t mean the 25th anniversary production of that piece was better or worse than the original. Lincoln Center’s revival of South Pacific a few years back won praise from all and sundry for its setting of a show nearly 70 years old, deftly bringing a modern touch to a Broadway warhorse.
Blankenbuehler’s production relies too much on glamor and not enough on quality. While some of the staging is quite pretty – the map effect showing Joseph taken out of Canaan to Egypt is terrific, and the wooden cut-outs of sheep and goats are a cute nod to the show’s origin as a school musical – at others, this poor production sags under its own weight. “One More Angel in Heaven” runs too long, because the producers added an extra chorus to expand the dance number; ditto with “Pharaoh’s Dream Explained.” And by the time the “Joseph Megamix” came around, I turned to my companion and said, “If it didn’t go against everything I believe in as an audience member, I’d walk out.” Why the show felt the need to condense into nine minutes the musical we’d just spent an hour and a half watching remains beyond me.
Not all of this is Blankenbuehler’s fault—it’s just what Josephhas become. The irony is that a show that was never meant to be a rock opera has steadily become one, thanks to its creators’ later success in that genre. Sometimes you can catch glimpses of the original, delightfully silly 1968 musical deep within this overblown, Las Vegas–style production. This is a show about redemption, after all, so maybe we should forgive all the bad aspects and focus on the good ones. But it sure is hard to see them through the fog effects and strobe lights.