It may be juvenile, brash and silly here and there, but Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ultimately transcends its own naivete with delightful exuberance and dazzling production values. From lyricist Tim Rice's humor to Webber's sweet pop tunes to the sophisticated lighting and set designs, the show at the Buell Theatre is always winking at us. The great thing is, the audience can't help but wink back.
Because this rock opera was first designed for children as a pop cantata (way back in 1968), the musical styles are somewhat dated, yet they're always funny and upbeat. Local children have been hired to perform as a kind of large Sunday School class, listening to the story and singing along as a background chorus. The Belles and Beaus of Carmody Middle School and the Showstoppers USA chorus get right into the spirit of the piece and underscore the juvenile content of this version.
The story the children listen to is a radically altered version of the ancient Bible tale about Joseph and his brothers--the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob and the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. This secularized version features the youthful Joseph as an innocent braggart who makes the mistake of telling his brothers about his dreams. The particular dream that sets them off concerns their sheaves bowing to his sheaf in a field. They may not be seers like Joseph, but they're all smart enough to interpret that vision, and they don't like it. Jacob inadvertently cooks the kid's goose when he gives him the famous coat of many colors.
The brothers sell Joseph to the nomadic Ishmaelites, who in turn sell him to an Egyptian millionaire named Potiphar. He soon proves himself an exceptional household manager and rises to the top of Potiphar's economic empire. Unfortunately for Joseph, however, Mrs. Potiphar lusts after the youth, tries to seduce him and gets him into trouble (in the Bible, she cries rape). Thrown into prison, his ability to interpret dreams stands him in good stead and eventually brings him to the Pharaoh's notice. The Pharaoh has had a few recurring nightmares of his own; Joseph understands them and saves the country from ruin. The Pharaoh rewards him with the second-highest office in the land.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Jacob, his eleven sons and all their wives are facing starvation. The famine predicted by one of the Pharaoh's dreams--and prepared for by Joseph's farm-management program--makes it necessary for the brothers to travel to Egypt to buy corn. Now Joseph has his chance: What'll it be, revenge or reconciliation?
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Webber and Rice tell their goofy version of the story using a variety of pop-music metaphors. The brothers and their wives celebrate Joseph's enslavement with a country-Western dance routine, a calypso song saves brother Benjamin from incarceration, and the Pharaoh himself thinks he's Elvis. It's all a hoot, because the story is strong enough to sustain parody and the simple music is varied and lively.
But the big surprise is Kristine Fraelich's stylish delivery as the Narrator. It's a big part somewhat eclipsed by Joseph's more glamorous role. But it's Fraelich who ties all the scenes together, sets the mood and inspires most of the good feeling. Sam Harris is no slouch as Joseph, either. He manages to project a sense of innocence (crucial to the story), and he has a rich, powerful voice, a beautiful body that moves like silk and a thoroughly engaging presence.
A spitting camel and a singing snake lend the production a little Muppet-like surreality, and a series of light projections and floating clouds take it up a notch into the magical. It's all-singing, all-dancing, all-pro musical entertainment--and one of the few shows in town that really qualifies as family entertainment.