For a musical with such humble beginnings, the recent tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat now playing at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, shows no signs of its unassuming origins anymore. Now a toe-tapping extravaganza of flash, fog, cartoons, glitz and glitter, the story of Joseph taken directly from the book of Genesis delivers a similar message to when you heard it first in Sunday School, but through tons of songs and plenty of dance.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice originally conceived of Joseph in 1968 to serve as a pop cantata for a school spring choir concert. Yet it was only after the success of their similarly biblical Jesus Christ Superstar that they returned to the project to complete it as a fully-sung two act production. Much like the Old Testament story, Joseph is the favored of the twelve sons of Jacob whose ability to interpret dreams gets him in and out of trouble. Of course there is a coat of many colors, a gift from his father to Joseph, which causes such jealously among the brothers that Joseph is sold into slavery and eventually sentenced to life in prison. The fact that a “happily ever after” still awaits us in spite of all this will be no surprise. What gives the evening its many unexpected treats is the tour of musical styles Andrew Lloyd Webber takes us on, including anything from square dance to Elvis to calypso and almost everything in between.
Director and Choreographer Andy Blankenbeuhler helms this particular version of the familiar tale, fresh off of the success of a little show you may have heard of called Hamilton, where he served as choreographer. Knowing Blankenbeuhler’s background as a Tony-nominated dance man helps to make sense of this Joseph where the two characters billed as stars, the Narrator and Joseph himself, play second string to the unexpected MVP, the choreography.
The production takes full advantage of its biggest asset; a young and energetic ensemble who take on the roles of brothers, pharaohs, wives, Egyptians, prisoners, angels, and plenty more. Because of the large amount of music, Joseph traditionally includes a decent portion of dance, but Blankenbeuhler has this cast moving at every possible opportunity. The style appears more often like a modern dance concert than an all-out musical theater romp, yet still provides most of the energy for the piece as a whole.
But don’t go into this expecting a reverent bible story. Not only are the musical styles all over the map, but a very specific sense of humor runs deep, creating a contagious and delightful scrapbook-like mixture that will inevitably bring a smile to your face. Blankenbuehler manages to sidestep a small portion of the cheesiness inherent in the piece, but introduces a few new conventions that define the heart of the story. A reinvented prologue places Joseph in a modern-day setting with the cast moving interpretively around him as the Narrator outlines the idea of an everyday dreamer who can one day become a hero, “and he could be you.”
Blankenbuehler brings the themes of dreams and dreamers to the very forefront in many fresh ways, only some of which yield effective results. Video and projections designed by Daniel Brodie help us dive into a fantastical dream world projected on various surfaces, but pinpoint a challenge that runs through the entire production; over-saturation. By illuminating the space so much with animated sequences or brilliant stars or wildly shifting patterns, it turns the dark and quietly powerful moments, such as the most famous “Close Every Door” or “Any Dream Will Do,” into low-energy chances to page through your program.
Similarly, Costume Designer Jennifer Caprio has filled the stage with a fun and funky spectrum of looks, but when the famous coat of many colors finally makes an appearance, it gets lost in an already Technicolor world. Beowulf Boritt’s large but sparse scenic design functions artfully and economically. And while Howell Binkley’s lighting moves as colorfully and inventively as the cast, there may be one too many rock concert moments where the lights turn directly into the audiences’ eyes.
JC McCann as the title character has everything the part requires vocally, but comes off less interesting than the highly animated ensemble. He spends most of act one being tossed around until he gets a chance to command the stage with a solo “Close Every Door,” of which he takes full advantage.
Laura Helm, in the role of the Narrator, carries the largest burden of the intense score. While she conquers most of what the various styles demand, she brings to the table about what you might expect from your favorite network singing competition show, possibly taking more liberties with Webber’s melodies than necessary.
The ensemble itself is the life-blood of the story with Jacob Sharf (Reuben) and Peter Surace (Simeon) bringing the most memorable featured solos in the show. Tyler Jimenez (Butler) and Matthew J. Varvar (Benjamin) may get less to say than the other brothers, but are the most eye-catching in a dynamic group of talent.
Overall, Joseph is undeniably two hours of high-energy fun. If you’re looking for effective and careful storytelling, you won’t find it here, but there is no shortage of vibrant, striking colorful moments and an animated aesthetic that will leave your eyes wide. The performances are filled with joy and celebration, which may just leave you welcoming the rainbow of encores that Joseph delivers.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat plays through Sunday, January 3, 2016 t the Merriam Theater – 250 South Broad Street in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets call the box office at (215) 732-5446, or purchase them online.