Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has his fans and his detractors, and while his more recent works have found their share of criticism, it may be that his most genuinely popular work remains his initial collaboration with Tim Rice back in 1968: Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
"Joseph" was originally penned as a 20 minute program for a public school. The success of that production was such that it was expanded into a 40 minute production for a "fringe fair," then an hour-long production for London's West End, and finally a two-hour hit that enjoyed a lengthy run at London's Palladium.
The show is this week's offering at Music Circus, directed by Leland Ball, with musical direction by Dennis Castellano and costumes by David R. Zyla.
From the moment one enters the theatre and sees the multi-colored kalaidoscopic stage, the mood is set for a rollicking good time.
In the opening sequence (set in modern times), "Little Joe" is getting ready for bed, with Mama there to tell him a story. As Little Joe, Aaron Friedman is delightful. The kid's a real pro, having first appeared on the Music Circus stage in 2001. This is his second production of "Joseph." While he doesn't have too much to do in Act 1, he comes into his own in the show's finale.
The dialog for this scene appears to have been written specially for this production. It is at the very least a recent addition, as Joe prays for "Harry, Hagrid, Ron and Hermione" (and the Harry Potter books weren't even a twinkle in J.K. Rowling's eye back in 1968). There are also references to Giants hitter Barry Bonds and to various superheroes.
The scene does an excellent job of setting up the entire story as a child's dream, much as the opening sequences in the Wizard of Oz do for explaining the actions and the characters that Dorothy encounters after she flies over the rainbow. (The Barry Bonds reference, for example, explains why the Biblical Joseph would be playing baseball with his father!)
As to the story, it is, of course, the whimsical tale of Joseph, favorite son of Jacob, who is singled out from his 11 brothers and given a colorful coat by his father. His jealous siblings gang up on him, rip off his coat and sell Joseph into slavery. The torn coat is dipped in sheep's blood and Jacob is brought the sad tale of his son's demise.
Joseph becomes the slave of Potiphar (Chris Weikel) until his wife (Megan Hart) seduces him and then he is thrown in jail. There he begins to interpret the dreams of the butler (Danny Bergold) and baker (Michael McGurk) to the Pharoah and his skill brings him to the attention of the Pharoah himself, who also suffers from confusing dreams, and who appoints Joseph as his #2 man to get Egypt through an approaching drought.
That this tale could be told in such an entertaining manner is surprising. But with lyrics like 'And when Joseph tried it on, he knew his sheepskin days were gone' how could it be anything but charming?
As Little Joe falls off to sleep, the Biblical Joseph arises from his bed and the Bible story begins. Max von Essen is a strong Joseph, a commanding presence with an overlay of mischief in everything he does.
As Joe's mother, who morphs into the story's narrator, Misty Cotton, who previously performed this role with both Donny Osmond and with Sam Harris, is perfect. She has a lovely voice and her diction is so clear that one can understand every word.
Joseph's brothers (Kyle Gonyea, Michael-Demby Cain, Richard Bulda, Danny Bergold, Michael McGurk, Cameron Henderson, Jonathan Stahl, Jacen R. Wilkerson, Jordan Bass, Don Alden and Joseph Medeiros) are each strong singers, dancers, and occasionally acrobats, but Bulda as Levi and Kyle Gonyea as Ruben stand out from the rest. Bulda takes the lead in the wild-west rendition of "One More Angel in Heaven," breaking the news to Jacob of his son's "death." Gonyea belts out "Those Canaan Days" (a dramatic French chanson) with sometimes breathtaking force. Michael-Demby Cain as Simeon leads the "Benjamin Calypso" (which includes some audience participation).
Robert Gallagher's Pharoah is a hoot. The confines of the Music Circus stage do not lend themselves for the traditional entrance via sphynx, but his entrance is memorable enough, and when he takes mic in hand to sing....well, he's a real "king" in every possible sense of the word.
Kudos must be given to the imaginative staging of the set changes, which also serve to advance the "dream" notion, as little Joe, in his Spiderman pajamas is carried off, sleeping in his bed, by techies dressed as some of his favorite superheroes.
Very limited seating is available for this popular production, which runs eight performances only. Matinees are given Thursday and Saturday at 2 p.m., but "Joseph" is a short show. Even with a late start, 25 minute intermission, and the traditional extended curtain calls, the evening performance is over by 10 p.m.. But no one will leave the theatre feeling short changed. And the kids should love it.