Sometimes, you get to see a play where the expectations are all laid out for you. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, now playing at the Kennedy Center, is that type of show, setting up expectations with its mere description then fulfilling those expectations with almost scary accuracy.
So here’s the setup: Joseph is a collage of pastiches of musical styles that tell the story of Joseph from Genesis entirely in song. This production (a revival) is a national touring production in the giant plush-red Opera House of the Kennedy Center.
The big names in the cast are Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo, recently married former American Idol contestants, who play Joseph and the Narrator respectively with other roles filled out by touring veterans. This tells you something already: the leads will be heavily focused on singing, so dancing and acting might be left behind by these two.
That’s certainly true here, but their focus on song doesn’t mean that they reached the full vocal potential of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. DeGarmo was in her vocal comfort zone, with Young somewhat less so, but both leads need to work on storytelling through their singing. Currently, they meet expectations in a bad way, treating their songs like standalone performances without dynamic emotions, that are reminders of their background in pop music and on American Idol. In musical theater, there needs to be shifts in feeling during songs so that the music brings the actor and the audience to a new emotional place over the course of the 3 or 5 or 10 minute length of the piece, and more importantly those emotions have to be appropriate in the context of the story.
But beyond the difficulties of the leads, this national tour of Joseph had no trouble expressing itself. One of the expectations that the musical carries is the exorbitant spectacle now reflexively associated with big budget Broadway musicals. The philosophy is: the bigger, the gaudier, the more shockingly enormous, the better.
This production takes a smart technological tack to satiate the audience’s desire for huge spectacle while avoiding carting a 30 foot Sphinx around the country: the setting and location are done almost entirely through projections and video. Daniel Brodie, credited as the projection and video designer, is one of the pillars that Joseph leans on. But like a caryatid, he holds that weight and makes it look gorgeous. Not only do the projections manage to clearly establish locations while staying out of the way of the complicated song and dance executions demanded by this show, but Brodie goes beyond that, sometimes giving the audience the impression of being in an IMAX theater with the scale of his work. He also creates flairs that give some verve to group-supported solo numbers, though it must be somewhat humiliating for be-sheeted ensemble members to be used as screens for projections.
Much of the set design and mood-setting that isn’t put on the projection designer gets dropped in the lap of Howell Binkley, the lighting designer. Binkley’s design has many fine qualities: quick shifts that drive moments of intensity, a truly technicolor palette, and gorgeous full washes of color on the stage. But subtlety is not one of its qualities. The lighting is all intensity, all the time. This Joseph feels like it was Christmas for Binkley; he got all the lighting toys in the world, and he couldn’t resist the temptation to use them all. To his credit, he filled the stage with good clean light when appropriate, so that the audience couldn’t miss all of the detailed work by this ensemble.
JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
Closes January 4, 2015
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
2 hours, with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Those ensemble members are the other pillar that this production leans on, and their standout performances are a much better reason to catch this show than any star power that the leads could offer, or even the mind-melting design. All eleven of Joseph’s brothers do exceptional work, figuring out distinct characters and developing them in reaction to the story of the musical. The soloists (Paul Castree as the crowd-pleasing Simeon, Brian Golub as a pop-infused Reuben, and Max Kumangai as a rollicking Judah) put in powerful performances leading the ensemble during their numbers and leaving the audience wanting more and more of the brothers.
Such crisp execution and smart song work is an expectation from a veteran group like this, but the brothers, most particularly Paul Castree who brought the house down with “Those Canaan Days,” stepped on the gas and didn’t let up through the whole show. They were exhausting, exciting and exhilarating to watch. I recommend that you see Joseph if you’re looking for an over-the-top big house Broadway-style musical, and these guys are the reason why.
That success may be due to having the Director and Choreographer for this Joseph be the same person: Andy Blankenbuehler. The Tony Award-winning choreographer was brutally and thrillingly exacting on this cast, choreographing it to within an inch of its (and the ensemble’s) life. Moves are hyper-precise, and every second seems etched in stone. Some people find hours of perfectly coordinated dancing to be a bit soulless, but others expect and demand that level of choreography at this kind of show. No matter what camp you fall into, though, the final number (which rehashes the entire musical into a rave-like dancing bonanza) will blow you away with the talents and stamina of this cast. If that sounds appealing, I expect you’ll enjoy this production.
JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
Closes Jan 4
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly a time-warped kitchen-sink affair, best, if not only, appreciated by younger members of the audience.
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post It’s lighted like a rock concert and designed like a video game, and although Blankenbuehler’s dances are crisp and impeccably drilled, the mechanical precision and relentless speed can make the cast appear like soulless pistons.
Ellen Burns . BroadwayWorld there is nothing subtle about Joseph’s coat, or this show…and I couldn’t be happier about it. My nearly sixteen-year-old friend looked at me at intermission and said, with a big smile, “I’m REALLY enjoying this.” That about says it all.
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide His [Young’s] voice is a higher tenor than you’d expect for a male lead and sometimes when he harmonizes with the narrator you can’t always tell which is which.
Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell . DCMetroTheaterArts transcendent and transplendent!