Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor
At the Drury Lane Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Oakbrook Terrace – Talk about trying to fix something that’s not broke! In its misguided revival of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, ” the Drury Lane Theatre takes a charming, wry, creative musical and deconstructs it into a loud, sometimes vulgar, often confusing shambles that bury the delightful original.
“Joseph” is inspired by the story of Joseph and his brothers. That’s the Book of Genesis story of young Joseph, Jacob’s favorite among his 12 sons, who receives a splendid coat of many colors from his dad. Joseph’s jealous brothers sell him into slavery and he is taken to Egypt. There, Joseph eventually rises to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man and saves the country from a famine, finally being reunited with his aged father and now repentant brothers.
“Joseph” was the first collaboration by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, born as a 15-minute cantata in a London school in 1968 and expanded through the years into a full-length international hit. The show has a special place in Chicagoland musical history in a version that starred Donny Osmond and captured the hearts of theatergoers during the 1990’s. Fans of the show should be irate at the current presentation and those who are seeing the show for the first time may be scratching their heads.
“Joseph” telegraphs its problems from its opening moments. The locale of the action has been moved from a vague but recognizable ancient Middle East setting to a hotel room on the modern Las Vegas strip. The shift in setting immediately cuts the storyline from its needed Biblical roots. Now Joseph appears as a young man, apparently a tourist, who checks into the room and quickly finds he is engulfed by a flock of oddball characters who represent the 11 brothers from the Biblical story but look more like a biker gang. Indeed, Joseph spends most of the evening dressed in boxer shorts and wearing an understandably baffled, alarmed expression. In the previous “Joseph” shows I’ve seen, the title character is an endearing fellow who grows in dramatic strength as the story moves along. The Joseph at Drury Lane is flavorless and one dimensional, robbing the storytelling of its most human figure.
“Joseph” is sung, with virtually no dialogue. Lloyd Webber and Rice have composed about 20 original songs to tell their story, a droll mix of rock ‘n’ roll, French cabaret, country and western, calypso, and traditional Broadway. But the DL staging ricochets from one song to another, obliterating their narrative purpose and gravely impeding the audience’s ability to follow what the heck is going on up on the stage.
The show is awash in Las Vegas references. There are cameo appearances by Cher, Wayne Newton, Bette Middler, and the like (what, no Rat Pack?), all their unexpected appearances unnerving Joseph though he still manages to take a selfie photo with each celebrity. Viewers not hip enough to recognize the cadre of contemporary Las Vegas female singers must fend for themselves.
The production relies heavily on gaudy technical effects—splashy lighting, video, and even a bit in which Joseph gets out his IPhone to consult Google to find an answer to the question of how he should interpret Pharaoh’s dream of famine and plenty. Pharaoh, by the way, is written to be performed by an Elvis Presley look-alike. In the DL revival, Elvis is replaced by Elton John for no discernible reason. Fortunately, Colte Julian delivers a nifty Elton John impersonation, one of the very few moments when the production actually works.
The other performer who merits mention by name is Christina Bianco, a little pepper pot with a strong voice who takes the role of the narrator and gets to wear all kinds of costumes and pop up in all kinds of places on stage. Bianco is given the responsibility of ending the show with a lounge act medley of bits and pieces of songs from a vast number of female vocalists, many associated with Las Vegas (Celine Dion, Cher) and others outside the Vegas entertainment perimeter (Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews). Bianco deftly shifts her vocal gears about every 10 seconds, an estimable feat that blunts but does not excuse the preceding carnage.
The production has receiving polarizing reviews. Some critics blasted the production and others loved it. The modest-sized audience at my Friday night performance seemed to like what they saw and heard and even gave the cast a standing ovation, though that tribute has become such an automatic kneejerk reaction in Chicagoland theater as to be valueless.
Well, enough. A theater probably is entitled to one conceptual calamity every so often. Drury Lane has provided its audiences with many splendid theatrical experiences in recent seasons, though it’s hard to understand how such a misjudged presentation could have eluded the notice of the theater’s artistic management during the planning and rehearsal periods. A veil can be drawn over “Joseph” as we anticipate upcoming happier days and nights of Drury Lane excellence with a revival of “South Pacific,” followed by a rare venture into a straight drama with the Tennessee Williams classic “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” runs through March 25 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane. Most performances are Wednesday at 1:30p.m., Thursday at 1:30 and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $62. Call 630 530 0111 or Call 630 530 0111 or visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. February 2018
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