I first saw Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1973 in London before it moved to the west end. It still had some of the enthusiasm and roughness of a school production, which indeed was the source of its first commission of a 19-year old Andrew Lloyd Webber. In some ways, there is a charm in this pickpocket-a-tune, patched piece that some of the glitzier Webber-Rice packages don’t have for me.
Olney Theatre Center chose Joseph as the opening production of its season to celebrate its history with the work (Jim Waring having directed an early incarnation) and its community base. For a feel-good night with family values abounding, Webber’s first work and this Olney production got the recipe in many ways just right.
Director and designer worked hand in hand to deliver a show that consciously maintains throughout the fun and even the clumsiness of a community endeavor. Designer Eugenia Furneaux-Arens has created a rough, flimsy-looking wooden scaffolding as the main set, a structure built in modules like open blocks that are wheeled around to present different “faces” as scenes shift from Canaan to the Egyptian Pharaoh’s palace. Her work created an appropriate backdrop for the story by giving us something resembling a church pageant but with elements that had roots dating back to medieval trade guilds’ open air presentations of Britain’s earliest secular drama.
Director David Hilder established a production style by using these framing devices to show each character as a Bible story cut out. He signaled effectively that the audience should expect a “reduction” of character and that the two dimensional quality of set and character would be carried throughout.
Hilder used another “frame” to establish the story-within-a-story by setting the prologue in a dollhouse-perfect child’s bedroom with a wall of floor to ceiling bookshelves. He made the narrator, played by Eleasha Gamble, a mom who chooses from these shelves the Bible to read aloud to her little boy from the Old Testament. As the story begins to come alive in the child’s imagination, the dollhouse wall flies up, disappearing into the starry night and the story gets enacted.
There are a lot of family values in the show and in this production. People work, play, and dance together – even in rough times with smiles on their faces. Mommies are nice and read good stories from the Bible to their children before bedtime. Adversity builds character. The tale told sells the message that if you hold onto your dreams and work hard you can reap power and success. (If you can’t be the man you can be the man behind the man (or the pharoah.) Families come back together even after disaffections, and all is forgiven. Sex is not mentioned or engaged in reluctantly and, as with other dodgier aspects of the Old Testament story, unpleasantness is always glossed over.
And everyone gets a turn. The music isn’t difficult. The songs don’t have much range and most lack what I’d call a dramatic journey. The style of the music isn’t coherent, but the songs make up a patchwork as colorful as Joseph’s coat with each individual player getting to show off what he can do. A big stand out was Russell Sunday who, as the pharaoh, gets time-warped into a white spangly-outfitted Elvis, crooning and wiggling with no holds barred, who then slipslides into a James Brown screech. R. Scott Williams performed a clever vaudeville duet with narrator Eleasha Gamble. As Joseph’s brother Judah, Mardee Bennet danced and sang a fetching calypso in Egyptian sarong-wrap that was amusing though anything from politically correct. Nick Lehan gave us the appropriate twang for his tear jerking country western number “One More Angel in Heaven.”
Alan Wiggins in the title role makes his debut at Olney in this show. He has a very nice voice, shown effectively in the solo “Close Every Door”, but in this production’s style and staging there was not much chance to develop depth of character or a real central presence. I would love to see him back in a meatier role.
Even a sadder use of talent was Eleasha Gamble who plays narrator mom. For those of us who saw her and loved her as Laurie in Oklahoma! and know what she is capable of, it’s hard to see her in this cardboard cutout of a June Cleaver mom, perpetually smiling and earnest. Another problem with her performance was the balance of sound the evening I saw the show. As mom, she often had to sing facing upstage and the ubiquitous electronic mic system made her voice disembodied and unintelligible. In some moments, the range was too low for her, in others not in proper balance with the orchestra. It was only when she got to her high belt that we could see she has the chops to sing over any orchestra.
In keeping with the “let’s put on a musical” style of the show, the orchestra was made of only five people with Musical Director Christopher Youstra serving as conductor, piano and, for one number, accordion player on stage. Youstra had to serve up the musical equivalent of the Cheesecake Factory’s “something for everyone” menu, and, much like their menu, it was all very colorful while you’re there, but getting home, one wonders what one’s eaten.
As for the chorus numbers, there were a lot of Joseph’s brothers and they got to ham it up and strut about in songs like “Joseph’s Dreams” and “Those Canaan Days.” I could almost see the young Webber thinking of a story where he could use a lot of schoolboys who might be self-conscious if they had to sing alone but who could give each other courage and musical support to sing together (the only other story that came to mind was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s brood of brothers, but that’s another musical.) The emphasis in this production was on celebration of community and the ordinary being able to have their dreams come true. Several of the women in the show looked like you and I might pirouetting across the stage.I was reminded of the wannabes who get thrust in the limelight in one of our “reality” TV dance shows.
Indeed, as I reflected later, though it started as a British product, Joseph has all the earmarks of something peculiarly right for the sensibilities of an American heartland musical. It’s a show that keeps sentiment front and center. It’s got the story of a boy who overcomes adversity by rising to the occasion (and wasn’t that the same heart tug as our Oscar choice this year?) And, in case we wouldn’t get its application, the boy gets updated from Joseph in the Bible to the fresh faced ever smiling presence of the child in the bedroom, here played by Sean Silvia, who in his dreams gets to sing and dance with Joseph and co. For all these reasons, the limitations of the show are also what seal its popularity.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was a good choice for the theatre to celebrate its loyal relationship to the Olney community, a relationship that is palpable every time I go to Olney Theatre Center. The night I saw Joseph, the space was packed with patrons and neighbors, all greeted as friends, who treated this show like their own. It felt like a small town where everyone gathers at a high school or church event to see how the kids are growing up. Parents with their children all dressed up, older folk with various ambulatory aids, young professionals suited from work, and a curious but enthusiastic group dressed something like the camp YMCA, everyone came to be part of this. And all came out of the theatre having loved the show.
In Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, nothing is too real but neither is anything disturbing. Maybe it’s the way we wish things were: an old Bible story which teaches us character and to be true to our dreams, and while we’re at it, to have fun.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs thru March 20, 2011 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd, Olney, MD.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by David Hilder
Choreographed by Wendy Seyb
Music direction by Chris Youstra
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 1 hr, 25 minutes with no intermission