A Good Joe

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is an ideal microcosm of the contemporary Broadway musical. It's based on a story written by someone else (the complete text may be found in the Book of Genesis, Chapters 37 through 50); it borrows from several popular musical genres (including calypso, country-Western and rock and roll) to create a score that has something for everyone; it's written by a team of famous composers who've since parted ways for more lucrative solo careers (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice); and it's a favorite of variety performers turned actors, including Donny Osmond, who recently completed a five-year international tour of Joseph, guaranteeing the show some sort of immortality, if only in the future repertory of cruise ships everywhere.

Family audiences flock to the show, which stands a chance to out-Disney Disney in the race to sell popular myths to as many people as possible through as many mediums as are available. Yet Joseph isn't exactly a marketing professional's dream: The show's mix of musical styles has the jarring effect of entertaining spectators one minute while befuddling them the next. Then again, its inconsistencies are understandable given that it began in 1968 as a fifteen-minute operetta for children and evolved over a period of several years into a Broadway blockbuster (the latest New York revival was in 1993).

The completely sung piece tells the Old Testament story of Joseph (Charles Langley), who is both adored and despised (his eleven brothers, in particular, can't stand him). His father, Jacob (Frank Oden), expresses his devotion to Joseph by giving him a coat of many colors that also stands as a symbol of Joseph's many talents and abilities--including his remarkable power to interpret the dreams of others. While some regard Joseph's supernatural faculty as a divine gift, his kinfolk consider his takes on their head trips a nuisance. They plot to get rid of him, only to later regret their actions when Joseph is in a position to decide the fate of the youngest brother, Benjamin (Rob Costigan). Predictably--especially so for veterans of Sunday school classes--the family reunites, to much rejoicing.

Directors Don Bill and Jeffrey Gallegos cleverly stage and choreograph the musical, relying on a narrator (Loraine O'Donnell-Gray) to anchor and lend context to each scene. An exuberant cast of singers and dancers displays more enthusiasm than expertise in the early stages of the show, and as a result, the production occasionally resembles theme-park entertainment. Some members of the Arvada Center's opening-night audience wondered aloud whether they were watching a Broadway musical or an Up With People routine. The use of an extraordinarily loud sound system (designed by the aptly named Richter Scale Productions) might be appropriate for the few songs that take their inspiration from popular music, but the stadium-rock sound levels are simply too intense for a theater that holds only a few hundred patrons.

Aural overload notwithstanding, the directors have a knack for adroitly orchestrating events, and things become more clearly focused and precise as the 105-minute musical progresses. Especially enjoyable is a scene in which Joseph "disappears" from Israel while playing a football game with archrival Egypt. Echoing the fast and furious world of modern sports free-agency, the Egyptians agree to take Joseph off the hands of Team Israel for a mere twenty shekels. His eleven siblings seize the offer, retaining the rights to Joseph's famous jersey (the colorful coat). Then they smear it with goat's blood and give it to their father, Jacob, singing "One More Angel in Heaven" in an attempt to convince the patriarch that his beloved son is dead.

If that doesn't hook you into the show's offbeat look at biblical legend, then an Elvis Presley impersonation might do the trick. When Pharaoh (Dan Plesha) can no longer abide the haunting images that appear to him nightly in his dreams, he summons help from Joseph. Plesha actually dons a cheesy black wig and swivels his hips as he and Langley serve up "Song of the King" and "Pharaoh's Dreams Revealed."

Not so encumbered by stale cliche is "Benjamin Calypso," a wonderfully staged song that features ten of Joseph's brothers dancing to the musical sounds of the Caribbean. In the scene preceding it, the brothers beg Joseph for food and receive baskets of grain to satisfy their appetites. As the calypso number approaches, the brothers grovel on the floor (their backs turned toward us), begging for Benjamin's release. In a magical moment, the actors, unseen by the audience, turn their baskets inside out to outfit themselves as a genuine conga line. As they dance across the stage, adorned with rainbow-colored arm ruffles and straw hats, the directors' inspired treatment of the show attains full flower.

It's difficult to understand why Bill and Gallegos didn't follow the lead of the 1991 London Palladium revival of the show, which featured fifty children as a youth choir (the Arvada cast is made up entirely of adults). After all, Webber himself said that the show is intended for children. How better to engage the interest of children than by having portions of the show performed by their peers?

Be that as it may, this production appears to be principally geared toward adults, though its whimsy will certainly appeal to kids. As the final scene draws to a close and we prepare to thank the actors for their work, they return to the stage in hitherto unseen brightly colored spandex costumes to dance a five-minute curtain call that has no relevance to the show except perhaps to showcase the considerable talents of its cast. Each principal performer steps forward, reprising the familiar tunes of the production, and we are treated to what seems like a fast-forward version of the entire musical.

By that point, however, the audience is willing to devour whatever dish Bill and Gallegos have cooked up for them in this theatrical potluck. All in all, the production may not make much sense, but its brightly colored array of song and dance numbers delights crowds. For an Old Testament yarn, that's saying a lot.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, through December 14 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.

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Jim Lillie