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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — Media Theatre

JosephInside300       From its title, you know that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had fun writing and assembling “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” One of the last things the composing team might have thought when they created the piece in 1968 is it would be part of the standard musical theater repertoire and appear somewhere on Earth every day of every year.

       “Joseph” begins life as 20-minute skit commissioned to teach a Sunday school class the Biblical story of Joseph, his colored coat, and his route to becoming Pharaoh’s assistant in ancient Egypt. It then becomes a record album that gains popularity after Lloyd Webber and Rice’s irreverent two-vinyl wonder, “Jesus Christ Superstar” appears and finds international success.

       “Joseph” was never designed or meant to be a full-fledged theatrical production. Neither, for that matter, were “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “Evita.” They all originate as records, scores to be heard but not necessarily seen or acted.

        History obviously tells a different story. I first saw a staged version of “Joseph” at Philadelphia’s Playhouse in the Park in 1974. The production was entertaining but seemed unformed. The breakthrough production for “Joseph” came in 1981 when The Narrator began being played by a woman, casting for Joseph dictated a cute or hunky young man, preferably both, and the material was separated into individual vignettes that took full and witty advantage of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s pastiche score, each sequence riffing on a different kind of popular music from country to Elvis to calypso.

       The music, the element that drove the piece since its conception, provided the fun, and the 1981 choreographer, Tony Tanner, didn’t miss a bit of it. Every production of “Joseph” since his has followed Tanner’s pattern. “One More Angel in Heaven” features the Texas two-step that matches the beat Lloyd Webber wrote for it. “Song of the King” casts Pharaoh as Elvis singing to a reminder of “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” “Those Canaan Days” becomes a French cabaret lark, raised berets and all. “Benjamin’s Calypso” brings the steel drum and Belafonte-Kingston Trio rhythms to the Biblical setting. Amid the parodies and tributes, Lloyd Webber and Rice provide Joseph with two ballads that serve as anthems, “Close Every Door” and “Any Dream Will Do.”

        With all of these musical styles, dances to go with them, and Rice’s cartoony relation of the Genesis chapters devoted to Joseph and his father, Jacob, a director can have a field day staging the work.  “Josephs” of all qualities and levels have been mounted since 1981. Some are creative. Some take it for granted that because “Joseph” is a lasting hit, the show itself does the work. Jesse Cline’s approach to the current production at the Media Theatre, where he is artistic director, is somewhere in the middle, sprite enough to entertain and hold attention but not quite engaging enough to make “Joseph” a charmer.

       The production often lacks focus, something Cline, of all directors, usually insists upon and takes pains to achieve. The Media stage is often too active. The dances, choreographed by Dann Dunn, seem to sprawl all over the stage and lack the sharp line that gives them cohesion and collects on Lloyd Webber’s clever musical jokes.  Groups need to be tighter. The chorus, the men who play Joseph’s 11  brothers, are mostly in synch, but they are rarely in line. It often looks like 11 people doing their own dance instead of an ensemble of 11 doing one. Discipline and precision are missing.

       Children, used to good effect to set up the format of “Joseph” being a story, are coached to react to what they see on stage. When photos of Joseph’s brothers appear on a projection screen, the kids dutifully begin to count them. When something of interest happens, they all point to it. Involving the children is a good idea, but it goes awry because the kids, camped in two groups stage right and stage left, grab attention that is better directed to the action on the stage.

      Lauren Cupples, who does a fine job playing The Narrator, is often the victim of this. I understand words are more important than stage activity at some of these points, and the children provide something visual to accompany Cupples’s story, but I found the activity distracting. Of course, the antics did give me a chance to watch the children, and I saw one, a little blond girl wearing green and sitting in the front of her group, stage left, who I thought had a lot of poise and talent.

       There is another instance, following Joseph impressing the Pharaoh with a dream interpretation, in which Cupples is singing amid the children sitting stage left, but Joseph and the Pharaoh dominate center stage with what looks like a mutual mancrush. Again, she’s a victim. Her story is the most important part of that passage. I had to look for and find Cupples when her whereabouts should have been apparent. (With miking, you can’t judge a sound’s direction.)

        Cline is a serious director. I half think “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is too much of a flapdoodle to challenge him. He does better with meatier matter like “The Wild Party,” “Thrill Me,” and “Spring Awakening” that require a director to infuse some passion and framework. In some ways, Cline takes “Joseph” too seriously.

         Musical numbers, being parodies, have to be a bit relaxed. In synch, but relaxed. “One More Angel in Heaven” had an almost desperate quality to it. The brothers think they’re being clever in the way they’ve devised to tell Jacob what happens to his favorite son, Joseph. They are reporting a death, but they want to couch in lightness. The scene on stage has to match the naughty wit and lightness Lloyd Webber and Rice, mostly Rice in this instance I think, had in conceiving and writing it. The approach needs to be nonchalant. I found it heavy and self-conscious, pushing for laughs instead of letting the intrinsic comedy of the song makes the point.

      Cline may be going for too much comedy when he has P. Brendan Mulvey weep loudly and convulsively every time Joseph’s name in mentioned. In many sections of this production, too much is done when less would have sufficed and been more in keeping with the material. The women’s chorus is another example of where staging goes too far. They are often directed to be gratuitously sexy when all they need to be is peppy.

      One other cavil. It occurs in the scene in which Joseph, still unrecognized by his brothers, tests his sibs by placing a valuable gold cup in a bag of grain he is giving them to relieve their starvation. The cup in this case is large, and while ten of the brothers are carrying ten pound sacks of grain, Joseph puts the cup in a small bag, one the size of a coffee or pastry sack, just big enough to fit it. Anyone receiving it would have to know it contains a heavy metal object and not milled wheat. The choice sets the logic of the piece off kilter. The sequence needs to be rethought.

        So, the Media’s amiable production is too loose and a bit too sloppy for my taste. It is, nonetheless, never boring and puts a lot of talent on display.

         Joseph is played by Kyle Lowder, returning to the theater after years as a soap opera performer with the Adonis body to prove it.

         Lowder makes an attractive Joseph. His muscles have muscles, so in scenes where he’s shirtless, he makes every man want to forgo chocolate and head to a gym. His waist is infinitesimal.

        More importantly, he brings a strong, true voice to the part and has a knack for maintaining an ironic glance as if Joseph is amused with most of what happens around him.

         In the five weeks “Joseph” has left to run, Lowder can grow more into his part. While Dunn’s dances aren’t nonchalant enough, Lowder is sometimes too content to let lines do the work he needs to do more work as an actor. He needs to give more thought to some of what Joseph says and provide more texture and context. His Joseph has presence. He needs to have command and something besides a physique, which Cline rightly dresses in most scenes, to draw you to him and make him a character you care about, and not only because the script says you should.

        The same is true when he sings. He is a pleasure to listen to, but there’s more to his songs than he is eking from them. Lowder has his character down and seems right in giving Joseph an air of superiority Jacob and others have made him feel, but he needs to work on endowing Joseph with a tad more personality and give more depth to some of his scenes.

       Lauren Cupples, when allowed to take center stage, brings you into the play and keeps you there. Cline cleverly turns Cupples’s Narrator into a teacher of sorts. When the production begins, you see her gathering the children in front of a projection of the elementary school across the street from the Media. You get the sense she is about to give her students a Bible lesson. This idea works most of the time. It fizzles a bit when you can’t see Cupples, when she’s lost among a mob or hidden in an unexpected part of the stage.

      As she’s proven in several roles, Cupples has a versatile, dramatic voice, and she uses it to bring perspective to scenes.

       While in the chorus of brothers, and especially in the scene where Joseph’s sibs beat him, tear his coat, and sell him into slavery,  Colin McAdoo stands out as being set on bringing some characterization to his part. He is not, alas, as successful as the Pharaoh, mainly because the part is a takeoff on Elvis Presley and McAdoo doesn’t have the right tone in his voice for the homage. It’s too high and not rhythmic  enough. He also exaggerates Elvis’s gyrations. Back in the chorus, he registers positively again.

      J.P. Dunphy once again shows ability of shining within an ensemble, again the chorus of brothers, and acing the moment when he has a book role, in this case the butler who asks Joseph to interpret his dream.

      P. Brendan Mulvey is saddled with too much business as Jacob, but his Potiphar is excellent.

      On several occasions, I’ve mentioned images Cline has projected on an upstage screen to illustrate or enhance the context of a scene. Like the production as a whole, these projections are hit and miss. They work best when Joseph talks about his dreams and you see stalks of corn bowing to others and the brothers radiating around Joseph as if he was the sun. They have an interesting effect when they comment on an ancient situation with a modern cognate, e.g. when Cline uses a 20th century Depression era bread line to accent the poverty in the Mideast during the seven years of famine. Sometimes they just seem objects of fancy. Except that Joseph could be regarded as a superstar of sorts, it is more distracting than enriching when a cameraman follows Joseph around and projects what Lowder is doing on stage to the screen.

       Dann Dunn’s choreography employs all of the right moves, particularly in the calypso number, but he needs to tighten up the ranks and create a more unified, precise look to his dances. They’re already lively and entertaining. With some care, they can be rousing. Robert Towarnicki’s open set leaves Cline and Dunn flexibility while neatly serving multiple purposes. Angela Hoerner goes for a rainbow effect in her costumes. The color comes mainly from T-shirts, never my favorite choice because they often look wrinkled and overwashed instead of crisp. In this case, they work and help to differentiate the children and male ensemble. Joseph’s coat is a masterpiece. The choice to dress Lowder in blue for his Egyptian scenes was inspired. It brings out his eyes, so they register across the footlights.

       “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” runs through Sunday, January 5 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. No show is set for Thanksgiving, Nov. 28, but a 7 p.m. show is schedule for Tuesday, Nov. 26. Weekday matinees are schedules for 2 p.m. Tuesdays,  Dec. 24 and 31, Wednesdays, Nov. 27 and Dec. 18 and Thursdays, Dec. 12 and 26. Tickets are $42 with discounts for seniors and children. They can be ordered by calling 610-891-0100 or going online to www.mediatheatre.org.

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