Light but Right
Boulder's Dinner Theatre changed hands last fall. It was sold by founder-director Ross Haley to local neurosurgeon Dr. Gene Bolles and his wife, Judy; they hired a new artistic director, Michael J. Duran -- who, just coincidentally, starred in the BDT's first-ever production 27 years ago. Which -- just coincidentally -- happened to be Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
I can't say I approached the task of reviewing the production with much enthusiasm. I've never been a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I couldn't figure out why the new administration wanted to mount this old chestnut. It's a slight piece, composed by Webber and lyricist Tim Rice in 1968 as a twenty-minute-long pop cantata for an Easter concert at an English school. Within minutes, however, I was enjoying myself. In terms of Webber's career, this is an embryonic work, but that also means it's far less pretentious than the puffed-up, overblown extravaganzas of the later years, and light on those manipulative song numbers that go on and on and on and get louder and louder and louder until the performer has moved him or herself to tears and the audience explodes rapturously onto its feet. Sure, there are a couple of throbbing, sentimental numbers -- "Close Every Door," "Any Dream Will Do" -- but they're mercifully brief, and rather modest.
This isn't a show with character development, a serious plot or profound psychological undertones; the style and tone were clearly influenced by the hallucinatory, feel-good ethos of the 1960s, when words like "dream" and "Technicolor" had particular resonance. It tells the biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob, whose brothers resent the love shown to him by their father, and the coat of many colors the old man gives him. They sell Joseph into slavery, and after a lot of shenanigans that include a false charge of seduction, time in prison and the practice of prophesy for the Pharaoh, Joseph becomes a big man in Egypt. Eventually, the perfidious brothers appear begging for food.
All of this is leavened with musical jokes and lots of effervescent humor. Webber and Rice goof on a number of musical styles. Asked by Jacob where Joseph is, the brothers explain that there's now "One More Angel in Heaven" in boot-pounding country-Western style. Later they lament the famine with all the gin- and cigarette-soaked world-weariness of Edith Piaf. There's also a rousing calypso number. And the Pharoah turns out to be Elvis -- naturally, since he's the King -- and tells his tale with all the appropriate hiccups and hip swivels. Time periods swirl into each other as schoolchildren in baseball caps move among ancient Egyptians wearing golden headdresses.
Any cast that attempts this play faces a strong temptation to toss in every joke and bit its members can think up. If Andrew Lloyd Webber could play all these games with the Bible, it has to be okay to play games with Webber, too. But artistic director Duran knows what he's doing. Sure, we notice immediately that Pharaoh and his entourage are wearing socks and contemporary lace-up shoes along with their robes and golden adornments. Seconds later, as the lights change color, we also realize that those shoes are blue and, uh, suede. But if the jokes are broad, they're also controlled, and the evening never feels unfocused or chaotic.
The play opens with the narrator telling the story to a group of children. Astonishingly, these aren't the annoying, hamming, mugging tots you always see in musicals; they're just sweet-voiced, disciplined and unself-consciously adorable. The choreography feels tight, too, and it makes all of the performers look good.
The cast comprises the usual BDT players, with a couple of interesting additions. These are all talented performers, and here they seem to work particularly well together. Everyone's full of energy and camping it up like fury, but nobody steps on anyone else's moment or carries on a piece of shtick one second too long. It doesn't hurt that the dulcet-voiced and warmly empathetic Shelly Cox-Robie plays the narrator. When she sings to the children, you feel that she really likes them, and I could swear I saw her wipe away a tear during Joseph's big reconciliation with his brothers. Scott Beyette is a pleasantly diffident Joseph. The brothers all work together as a unit, yet each has his own unique quality. Brian Norber has some very funny moments; A.K. Klimpke is his usual hilariously sardonic self; Matthew LaFontaine charms our socks off during the calypso number. With the exception of Cox-Robie, the women of the company are called on to serve in small roles and as the chorus. They give their all, however, contributing fizzing, high-octane energy. Pharoah is an almost-can't-fail role, but nonetheless, newcomer John Scott Clough is terrific in it. The sets and costumes, by Melissa Schrank and Linda Morken, respectively, are witty and bright. As for Meghan Larimore's sound design, for once the singing at BDT didn't seem to emanate from a vast and echoing train station.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds. Increased professionalism, I suspect, but will there also be increased thoughtfulness and soul? This company has been presenting above-average dinner theater for quite a while. Perhaps Joseph presages a leap into genuine artistry.
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