Saturday, April 20, 2019

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I'll start this review by deliberately not burying the lead. Although I've complained in the past about the sound system at the Noel S. Ruiz Theatre in Oakdale, I've never attended a show there that I didn't enjoy. And I'll say flat-out that their current production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the most entertaining show I've ever seen there.

In spite of the fact that I'm a huge Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, this was kind of a surprise to me. Like many (most?) people, I've always considered Webber's big four works to be Jesus Christ, Superstar, Evita, Cats, and, of course, The Phantom of the Opera. I had never seen Joseph performed before, and my only familiarity was a 1973 studio album of the show that I bought a few years back. Denise has always liked this play, so I bought the album to see what it was all about, then largely forgot about it. It was only the second show the pair of Webber and Tim Rice had created, and it only got popular after the success of Superstar. It's not performed all that often, so when I show that the CM Performing Arts Center was doing a production of it, I asked Denise if she wanted to go, and she said yes. (I tried to talk my daughter into going as well, but she didn't show much interest.) I thought it would probably be a pleasant night out, but that's about it.

As it turns out, I'm happy to tell you that this production Joseph is a total wackfest (and I mean that in the best way possible). It's well cast, well executed and full of life.

The show is based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors. Jacob is a farmer who has twelve sons, his favorite being the title character, Joseph. Jacob dotes on Joseph, and gives him a fancy, rainbow-colored coat to show his devotion. This naturally doesn't play too well with Joseph's eleven siblings, so they decide to take him out to the desert and kill his spoiled ass. While enacting their evil plan, however, they relent slightly, and decide to just sell him into slavery instead. They go back and tell Jacob that Joseph was tragically killed, while Joseph goes through some bad times. However, due to his talent for accurate dream interpretation, Joseph ultimately wins out and becomes the Pharoah's right hand man. Through a series of events, he eventually reconciles with his brothers (after fucking with their heads a little). The brothers regret their former actions, and it all ends happily.

I know it doesn't necessarily sound like a chucklefest, but Rice and Webber play fast and loose with the material, presenting us with a bit of country western ("One More Angel in Heaven"), an Elvis-impersonating Pharoah ("Stone the Crows"), a melodramatic French cafe number ("Those Canaan Days"), and a cool taste of the islands ("Benjamin Calypso"), all within an Old Testament setting. And this production takes full advantage of the zaniness, for a bright, buoyant night of entertainment.

As I mentioned, the cast is spot-on throughout. Hans Paul Hendrickson showed a fine comic flair in the theater's previous production of Mamma Mia!, but that was a much smaller role. Here, he really gets a chance to strut his stuff in the role of the title character. He spends a good part of the play being yanked around, by his brothers, the slavers, his master's wife (who thinks he's a stud muffin) and his jailers. But clueless as he often is, he remains an amiable and likable character throughout. In the end, his talent for dream interpretation wins the favor of the hip-gyrating Pharoah.

The role of the Narrator, which is the second-largest part in the play, was played tonight by Jess Ader-Ferretti (who alternates the role with Brianne Boyd). Denise opined that Ader-Ferretti played the role somewhat like Flo from the Progressive Insurance commercials, and I could kind of see what she meant. I was impressed that the actress successfully balanced sometimes playing the role very straight (especially when she was interacting with the children's chorus), but at other times fully joined in on the chaos around her. (I particularly liked when she marched out onto the stage during the great famine munching on a big bag of Lays Potato Chips in front of Joseph's starving brothers).

A few other individuals who stood out were Tom Anderson as Levi, whose job it was to break the sad news of Joseph's demise to his father in true country-western fashion; Terence Sheldon as Issacher, who led "New Canaan Days" in an outrageous fake accent that would have tickled John Cleese's French Taunter character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and Antonia Castronova as Issacher's wife, who got the chance a couple of times to show off her stunning operatic voice. Oh, and let's not forget The King ... um, I mean The Pharoah. Steve Cottonaro was very funny in the role, and a couple of times, his obviously improvised lines managed to crack up the other cast members (like when he suddenly referred to Joseph as "My little Honey Boo Boo").

Much of the strength of the production, however, came from it's highly talented ensemble cast. Whether is was breaking into a full "Eleven Brides for Eleven Brothers" hootenanny as the brothers and their wives celebrated Joseph's "death", doffing their French berets in "Those Canaan Days", or prostrating themselves before Joseph in exaggerated fashion during "Grovel Grovel", the genial young men and women who played the Brothers and their Wives (as well as a variety of other roles) sang beautifully, danced well and displayed great comic instincts.

Likewise, the children's chorus also added a great deal to the show. I especially enjoyed Ader-Ferretti leading them around the stage in a conga line for the "Benjamin Calypso" number.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that once again, the choreography for a CM production was outstanding ( I was all set to praise Ashley Nicastro again, but this time it was Ryan Nolin who did the honors). And the 12-piece (or so) orchestra was also first-rate. The show was well-directed, well acted and just a bundle of fun.

My only complaint/suggestion is you should make sure you know the story going in, because the theater's sound/PA problems make some of the narration difficult to understand. But so many of the songs here are sung by the ensemble that it minimized this issue compared to some of the previous productions I've seen at the Noel S. Ruiz.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is playing for two more weeks, through May 4th. I can't recommend it highly enough. It might not have all of the show-stopping numbers of some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's better-known shows, but it definitely has its own set of charms, and this production does a great job of bringing them to the forefront.