No, this is not your grandparents’ “Joseph.” But amen to that!
In Canaan, a group of farming brothers live with their father Jacob, whose favorite son Joseph is given a dazzling coat of many colors. But his eleven, insanely-jealous siblings, sick of Joseph and his dreams, decide to sell him as a slave to a band of Ishmaelite gypsies and fake his death.
Now in Egypt and in the employ of a local businessman, a series of misfortunes sets Joseph before the Pharaoh, whose bad dreams portend big changes for the country, and the man who can interpret these signs will be handsomely rewarded.
The first musical success by the blockbuster team of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Phantom of the Opera”), the genesis of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was originally as a 15-minute “pop cantata” written for a British elementary school with a payday of 100 guineas for the two. On 1 March 1968, the students performed a 22-minute version of "Joseph" on a drizzly Friday afternoon, to be met by a standing ovation, and the offer of a deal by music publishers Novello and Co.
It was then produced in 1969 as a concept album and at various venues in the UK before opening off-Broadway in 1981, and making the leap to the Great White Way in 1982, where it ran for 747 performances, picking up six Tony nominations. Now, more than half a century and over 20,000 productions later, “Joseph” has come to the land of milk and honey at The GEM Theatre, where, in a considerable piece of sparkle and glamour, it will enjoy a celebrated run until May 15th. And enjoy is certainly the word. For audiences who are punch-drunk on the seemingly insoluble conundrum on politics and the war in eastern Europe, here are two hours of uncomplicated, unbridled exuberance and escapism.
This story is a colorful twist on the Old Testament tale of Joseph, whose father gives him a multi-hued cloak as a gift. Joseph’s jealous brothers sell him into slavery, and he ends up in Egypt, where he leaves behind the wrath of the dungeon, meets an Elvis-impersonating Pharaoh and becomes his personal dream foreteller. There he rescues the country from famine, before reconciling with his penitent brothers and reuniting with his joyful father.
The Weber-Rice score is also famed for its mix of musical styles, from French ballads (“Those Canaan Days”), ‘50s-era rock and roll (“Song of the King”) and country-western hoedown charm (“One More Angel In Heaven”) to 1920s Charleston (“Potiphar”), the calypso magic of (“Benjamin Calypso”), earworm ballads like (“Any Dream Will Do”), sing-along songs like (“Go, Go Go Joseph”), jubilant, gospel hymns such as (“Joseph’s Coat”) and the swing jazz of ("Joseph’s Dreams"). Rice’s lyrics (“All those things you saw in your pajamas,” Joseph sings to Pharaoh, “are just a long-range plan for your farmers”) are unpretentious, clever, silly, and unforgettable.
When a script is as familiar to seasoned theatergoers as this one is, a director must stretch his imagination to make it new and fresh. Director/Musical Director Damien Lorton (also delivering a wickedly droll performance as the hedonistic Potiphar in Egypt) does just that by creating a more artful look and sound to this desert tale.
Number after number builds exquisitely before popping in a frenzy of energized ecstasy. A tightly drilled ensemble gives it their rip-roaring all, while simultaneously delivering exhilarating vocal harmonies. Every sparkling orchestration sounds fresh as paint, played by a terrific group of musicians, led by the great percussionist, Jeff Segal.
The bigger surprise is Hayden Mangum, who plays the title character. Mr. Mangum, who just finished his smashing “Into the Woods” run on The GEM stage as Rapunzel’s Prince, is a blonde Corinthian golden boy, stout-hearted and rock-ribbed that has an easy gait onstage and looks like he's afraid of nothing. With an uncommon depth, temerity and charm that’s genuinely refreshing in the role, he looks like a chiseled biblical superhero in his coat of many colors, and belts out ballads that rival the power of 1991’s blonde-locked Jason Donovan (that all subsequent Joseph portrayals have to beat).
You're also unlikely to ever hear his powerfully soaring solo, “Close Every Door,” performed as movingly or to such a crescendo of full-throated intensity as it is on offer here.
A spectacularly supreme Brittany Gerardi, accompanied by two tip-top Narratorettes, Hannah Clair and Giovanna Martinez, commands center stage, but, while warm-hearted and wonderfully engaging, gives both the material and her fellow performers a chance to breathe and shine. All three bring plenty of tantalizing pizzazz, from their silky, minx-like movements to their flawless, copybook numbers.
But never is flawless more evident than in the show’s sensationally versatile choreography, collectively marshalled by Shauna Bradford, Heather Holt-Smith, Angela Mattern and Nikki Snelson. Street dance, tap, line dancing, two-step, a riotous can-can bursting through a scene of monochrome misery for Joseph's impoverished brothers (“I said Canaan, not can-can”); it's all here, and it's all glorious.
And, in a plum role, James Scognamillo is spectacular as a rockabilly, superannuated, Elvis-like Pharoah in a cape and jumpsuit, and what looked like blue suede shoes. His rock ‘n roll recounting drew screams and squeals, as he breaks through the fourth wall in a hysterically rousing segment that may have been the highlight of the show (“Song of the King”). Overheated, makeup running and volubly out of puff by the end of his number (a send-up on the original article?), he is a comic highlight.
In both song and showmanship, "Joseph" transitions from a solid show to a storming one by the end of the first half, and every performance oozes personality and mischief from hereon in. The seduction scene, in which a steamy Lexi Cross plays Potiphar’s lascivious wife, has a kitschy, sexy whiff of the old “Carry On” films of long ago.
The brothers are “bros” who remain cocky and virile until “Those Canaan Days,” set during the famine, which almost steals the show for its pastiche of French chanson, its comic acting and its ticklish lyrics (“No one comes for dinner now / We would eat them anyhow”).
Finally, for all of its stagecraft, "Joseph" revs the audience adrenaline substantially from beginning to end, but really, really comes alive in its last 10 minutes, when the entire ensemble appears to recap once again the show's biggest numbers. Suddenly this variety show pageantry takes on a new vitality and precision, the songs brimming anew with their infectious melodiousness, and registering on a new spectrum of light entirely. Considering Webber's insidiously addictive style, long after the visual spectacle of this production has faded, you'll probably still be living with fragments of its score ad infinitum.
THE GEM THEATRE AND ONE MORE PRODUCTIONS PRESENTS JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, Performing April 21st through May 15th; Music ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER; Lyrics TIM RICE; Director/Musical Director DAMIEN LORTON; Producers NICOLE CASSESSO, DAMIEN LORTON & DAN BAIRD; Choreographers SHAUNA BRADFORD, HEATHER HOLT-SMITH, ANGELA MATTERN & NIKKI SNELSON; Costume Designer LUIS CORNEJO; Lighting Designer JON HYRKAS; Set Construction MENDENHALL PRODUCTIONS; Sound Designer DAN BAIRD; Wig Designer ALAN COLLINS; Makeup Designer BRIAN BOLANOS; Musician Coordinator JEFF SEGAL; Wardrobe Designer ROCCO ZAPPIA; Theater Manager TAD FUJIOKA; Bar Manager JON MICHELL; Box Office KARA DILLARD; Chief Executive Director NICOLE CASSESSO; Chief Artistic Director DAMIEN LORTON; Chief Operations Officer DAN BAIRD.
WITH: Narrator BRITTANY GERARDI; Narratorette HANNAH CLAIR; Narratorette GIOVANNA MARTINEZ; Joseph HAYDEN MANGUM; Potiphar DAMIEN LORTON; Potiphar’s Wife/Dance Captain LEXI CROSS; Pharoah JAMES SCOGNAMILLO; Jacob RANDY CALCETAS; Jacob’s Wife JAIME HOOVER.
BROTHERS: PETER CRISAFULLI; ERIK DIAZ; EDVAN GALVAN; AARON GIBBS; ISAIAH GUNDERMANN GRAHAM; REID HARRIS; NATE NOLEN; BRYANT MELTON; MATTHEW RANGEL; NICK SEIGEL; AVI SPITZER.
WIVES: GIOVANNA AVICHOUSER; SAVANNAH CLAYTON; LEXI CROSS; KARA DILLARD u/s; IVA ERWIN; SOLEIL GARCIA; COURTNEY HAYS; JULIA IACOPETTI; AMANDA JEAN; KADY LAWSON; SHELBY MONSON; HANNE SCHMIDT.
MUSICIANS: Keyboard 1 ADRIAN RANGEL-SANCHEZ, Keyboard 2 NICK BRAVO, Drums/Percussion JEFF SEGAL, Guitar JIMMY BEALL.
Duration: Approx. 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM. For Tickets and further information, please visit: https://www.thegemoc.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report