DECEMBER 2019 | Volume 186
The cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, 2019. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has become a classic for good reasons: the clever concept—putting contemporary-styled music and characters into a biblical story; the catchy tunes; the energetic actors playing all of Jacob’s sons and more; the chorus of cute kids.
Gateway Theatre’s holiday production of Joseph scores on many levels. As usual for Gateway, the musical features a mixed cast of a few Equity actors plus professionals-in-training. The pros—Oliver Castillo as Joseph, Chelsea Rose as the Narrator and Jacob, Madeleine Suddaby as Pharaoh—are fine,especially the two women. And the enthusiastic ensemble of young performers is excellent, showcasing Nicol Spinola’s dynamic choreography.
But director Barbara Tomasic’s concept strikes me as singularly wrong-headed, depriving the show of its thematic clarity and fundamental ironies. I’ve seen the musical multiple times before, but even I had trouble figuring out what was going on in places. I have to wonder what kind of sense the show would make to, say, a 12-year-old not particularly conversant with the Book of Genesis.
Its genius lies in the ironic contrast between the biblical story and setting on the one hand—Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams in the contexts of his family of Jewish shepherds and the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh—and the broad pop sensibility of the songs and their performance styles on the other: the country-and-western “One More Angel in Heaven,” the chanson-styled “Those Canaan Days,” the “Benjamin Calypso” and Pharaoh’shard-rockin’ Elvis-inflected numbers.
Tomasic has stripped the show of any visual references to the Old Testament settings and instead made it about the dream of a young boy (Timothy Liu) who wants to play guitar. The title and lyric of Joseph’s first song says “Any Dream Will Do,” and Tomasic seems to have taken that literally. But this dream, with its colourful contemporary costumes (by Christina Sinosich) and bare platform set with colourful stars (by Carolyn Rapanos), is so general and 21st century that the specific biblical tale told by the lyrics (there is no spoken dialogue) gets lost along with the entertaining ironies.
The questions arise early: Why are Joseph’s brothers so jealous of his coat of many colours (which, despite the lyric, doesn’t “dazzle” at all here) and his ability to interpret dreams that they’d sell him as a slave and pretend he’s been killed? That makes little sense in the contemporary visual setting of clean-cut young people in tee shirts, jeans and sneakers. Making even less sense are the three hostile cowboys who appear seemingly arbitrarily and lasso Joseph off to Egypt. Since Joseph and family aren’t shepherds in this version, there’s no livestock to contextualize the trope.
And so on. Lyrics about “counting shekels,” about “children of Israel,” about Joseph’s having been “promised a land of my own”—none of that makes sense without visual correlatives on the stage. The little dreamer watches it all transpire but why would even he understand what’s happening? The spectacle is fun: except for Joseph’s coat, Sinosich’s costumes are a hoot (e.g., the Egyptian court in Hawaiian shirts). Rapanos’ giant stars dropping from the flies look great. But the arbitrariness of these elements is a weak substitute for the specific contrasts suggested by the biblical setting.
Rose has a particularly strong voice and her narrative songs are a highlight. Suddaby is appropriately sensational as Pharaoh, the favourite character in every production of Joseph. Christopher King’s nine-piece orchestra provides rich accompaniment. But problems with the sound (hopefully fixed after opening night) meant that some of the key lyrics explaining the story got lost, adding to the unnecessary mystery of the tale.If you’re seeing the play for the first time, I’d suggest reading Genesis or at least the Wikipedia entry on Joseph. Turns out not just any dream will do.
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