Phamaly puts on a transcendent Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

For some in a Phamaly Theatre Company production, just getting out of bed, dressing and arriving at rehearsal is a grueling ordeal. The group — once known as the Physically Handicapped Actors and Music Arts League — comprises performers with all kinds of physical problems, some more visible than others. There are actors in wheelchairs, actors who limp, actors suffering invisible problems and diseases. Director Steve Wilson has been working with Phamaly for several years, and he understands not just how to overcome physical problems, but how to make creative use of them so that they become a vital part of what he and his company want to communicate.

The company can even take the old warhorses it tends to choose for its annual musicals — warhorses that make you groan when you see them scheduled — and give performances so fresh and alive that you feel ashamed of your own cynicism. This summer's production, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, is an early Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber creation, first produced in 1970, and it mercifully lacks some of the heavy-handed sentimentality that bogs down the pair's later work. The music is bright and tuneful, cheerfully satirizing genres from cowboy to rock to calypso to French ballad. The Phamaly version of Joseph begins in an institution where the members of the cast are confined, symbolizing the isolation and disconnection that can come with disability. Synchronizing their actions with the music, the performers move in ranks, each in turn picking up a small paper cup holding medications intended to pacify and dull the senses.

Left alone, Daniel Traylor's Joseph laments his existential loneliness with "Close Every Door." And lo and behold, a magical Narrator appears, played by Leonard Barrett. The Narrator tells Joseph the story of another outcast, his biblical namesake, who, because his father favored him and gave him the colorful coat, was hated by his brothers and eventually delivered by them into slavery. This Joseph was a dreamer. It was his dreams that first got him into trouble with his brothers; dreams also helped elevate him to a high position in Egypt.

Wilson and choreographer Debbie Stark elicit an astonishing level of precision and unison from the cast, and the actors work with beautiful concentration. Traylor reveals a pleasant tenor; his Joseph has sprightliness and humor as well as pathos. Barrett hasn't been working with Phamaly lately, but it's a joy to have him back. His presence is powerful, and he has a fine voice that can be gentle as a dove's croon or raise the roof. There's a very funny Elvis impersonation from Trenton Schindele as Pharaoh, and wistfully evocative violin playing by Leslie Wilburn as little brother Benjamin. Everyone in the fine cast contributes a unique voice and presence, creating a musical tapestry as multi-colored as Joseph's coat. And the evening flies on the sheer verve of musical director Donna Koplan Debreceni and her three excellent players.

According to the program, Phamaly — which recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and an invitation to visit Osaka, Japan — wants audiences to "re-envision disability." The company isn't looking for pity, but it does require understanding — and part of that understanding is knowing that disabled people aren't "other." They're us as we may become as the result of a serious illness, an unwary moment behind the wheel (ours or someone else's), a cell multiplying out of control, a mis-shaped protein, a virus in the blood. This show accomplishes all that, and something more. You can see it in the glow on the actors' faces, the way each plays his or her part as an affirmation of the sheer joy of being alive, making art, coming together. Tomorrow they may face the customary daily difficulties of breathing, moving, thinking or simply getting by — but for tonight, they've transcended all that — and the transcendence is, in some ways, eternal. It will linger for all of us. I defy you not to tear up at the joyous final number, or to refrain from humming "Go, go, Joseph" as you leave the theater.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman