This is the seventh time the Arvada Center has mounted Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — the last was in 2009 — and on the night I went I heard several audience members talking about previous productions. They made comparisons, refreshed each others' memories. Some said they'd made a point of seeing every version, others that they'd only been to one or two and wanted to know all about those they'd missed. Joseph clearly works for the Arvada Center's regular audience as reliably as The Nutcracker does for the average ballet company.
Under director Gavin Mayer, this one's sumptuous: a huge, detailed, expensive production; the stage swarming with talent; figures leaping, twirling, pulling little pranks everywhere you look. The costumes are elaborate and the set seems almost embroidered, all intricate curlicues, jewelry tones and shimmering detail, with colors reflecting those of Joseph's gorgeous, swirling coat, which are continually re-emphasized by the clever lighting. The dancers bring bright energy and light feet to Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck's choreography. You can count on fine voices at an Arvada Center musical and there are many on this stage, in particular that of Aaron Young, who plays Joseph. Musicals here are often over-miked, but this one is well-calibrated by sound designer David Thomas to bring out the nuances of the score. Not only that, but you can hear every word as it's sung.
This is an early work by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, far less ponderous and more humorous than their later output. Though Joseph tells a Biblical story, it isn't overtly religious. Still, it began life as a cantata in 1968, and every now and then — during the song "Close Every Door," for example — you hear those moving liturgical tones. For the rest, the music is mostly toe-tapping and light-hearted, with some out-and-out jokey stuff thrown in: "One More Angel in Heaven," sung by Joseph's brothers as a hoedown; "Those Canaan Days," rendered in the tough, gravelly rhythms of an Edith Piaf number, with everyone wearing berets and a mime doing his stuff in one corner; the tinkling number, "Benjamin Calypso," in which Judah and the other brothers plead for Benjamin's life (Michael Canada has a particularly compelling voice and approach as Judah). And no one who's ever seen a version of Joseph — I'm doubting there's anyone round here who hasn't — could forget the Pharoah's impersonation of Elvis on "Song of the King," which always brings down the house. Here it's an uncanny feat of mimicry by James Francis, whose gold pants alone could blind you if the glittering blanket he tosses off before rising to sing hasn't already done it. There's another stand-out performance from Sarah Rex, who holds everything together throughout the evening as the Narrator.
I have to admit I prefer the somewhat more off-kilter versions I've seen. Earlier this year, BDT's Joseph dispensed with the white tunic and gold adornments of the Narrator, clothing theirs in sleek, elegant pants. The choreography looked slick and up to date. In Phamaly's 2014 production, the action began in an unnamed institution where the cast members — all of them suffering from some kind of disability in real life — were confined. In the person of jazz singer Leonard Barrett, the Narrator became a sort of magic godfather, liberating the others through music: a metaphorical mirror of Joseph's incarceration in Egypt.
Still, this is a spectacular and generous-hearted holiday gift from the Arvada Center — and you know what they say about gift horses.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, presented by the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities through December 23, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada. For tickets, call 720-898-7200 or go to arvadacenter.org.
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