Faded Colors

Joseph packs a wallop, but overwhelming staging makes it feel distant.

Oooohhhh!

That's the exclamation of disappointment from a woman standing behind me and applauding as the curtain closes, the house lights brighten and she realizes the ecstatically leaping, singing figures on the Arvada stage are irrevocably lost to her. Clearly, she'd have been happy to sway and clap along with them indefinitely. Around her, people reach for their coats and purses and smile at each other, some of them bouncing a bit on the balls of their feet, or humming the tunes fromJoseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat under their breaths.

It's impossible not to respond to the Arvada Center's exuberant production, the practiced and energetic cast, the over-the-top gags. An early work, Joseph isn't one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's best, but his parodies of musical genres -- from country to disco, rock and roll to throaty French-cafe-style warbling -- are clever and entertaining. And even at that stage of his career, Webber knew how to build to those orgasmic climaxes that force listeners to their feet.

Charles Langley and Beth Malone in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Charles Langley and Beth Malone in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

There's almost no plot here, though. As Old Testament readers remember, Joseph was the favorite of his father, who gave him a rich and wondrous coat of many colors. Filled with envy, Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, but he impressed Egypt's Pharaoh with his ability to interpret dreams and rose to a position of prominence -- from which he was able to succor his brothers when, hungry and in rags, they came to him for help some years later. These are the bare bones on which all kinds of skits and songs are hung; a few of them are apparently improvised by the Arvada cast. These actors clearly enjoy working together, and they communicate that pleasure to the audience. This is the fifth (and final) time the Arvada Center has mounted Joseph to sellout crowds and rave reviews.

The narrator is played by Beth Malone, who's slender, graceful, dark haired and very beautiful. She looks like the woman Nora Dunn wanted to be in those long-ago Saturday Night Live skits. She sings powerfully and handles her duties with aplomb. Charles Langley is a handsome Joseph, with a smooth voice and -- as his costumes happily reveal to us -- a killer body. But both have a too-practiced, lounge-singer quality about them, smooth and smiley and impermeable. There's much to enjoy among the rest of the cast. Rob Costigan and Mark Martino are memorable as two of Joseph's brothers; David Villella has the perfect voice and presence for Pharaoh. Best of all, accompanied by a cacophony of monkeys, Melvin Tunstall III brings down the house as calypso-swaying, full-out-singing brother Judah.

But this production struck me as far too loud -- one small technical fault that detracted hugely from all its strengths. I can't gauge the quality of a human voice when it's miked above a certain volume. Tone washes out; color and variation vanish; a harsh, metallic quality prevails, and I feel assaulted.

Malone has a great deal of thumpety-thump storytelling to do in song -- resembling a recitative in opera -- and I found myself shrinking back into my seat whenever she seemed about to launch into a long stretch; it was worse when I could see the entire chorus revving up to join her. I thought Adam Simmons, who plays the butler Joseph meets in prison, had a lovely voice, but by the time he sang, my ears felt battered and deadened. The worst thing about a wall of sound like this is the way it interposes itself between the audience and the performer, canceling the communication that's at the core of theater. I'm not sure I'd recognize any of these actors -- talented as they are -- on stage anywhere else. Even if I did, it would be mere recognition, not that familiar little spurt of pleasure: "Oh, yes, I know you."

Ultimately, that's what this musical lacks: a sense of individuality. It's not just that the performers could be interchangeable. It's also that there's never one moment that feels unique -- no haunting curve of melody, no surprising human gesture, no eccentric or elegant turn of phrase among the lyrics. Just lots of mumbo jumbo about following your dream, surrounded by jigging and cleverness and sound.

Drifting off to sleep that night, I start thinking about Thaddeus Phillips, creator of Lucidity Suitcase, one of whose one-man shows -- a strange pastiche of memory and invention -- I'd seen a month or two earlier in Denver. I summon him up. And there he is behind my eyelids, tap dancing on a splintery wooden platform in a cavernous building that smells of paint. In front of him is a rapt and tiny audience. The only sound is the staccato of his shoes. He isn't smiling.

 
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