Oak Ridge Playhouse Dusts Off Rice/Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, that staple of middle schools and church groups (and Donny Osmond’s personal cash cow for a decade), closes the 67th season at the Oak Ridge Playhouse this weekend. It has been given a spirited production under the solid direction of Reggie Law, with clever choreography by Tony Williams.

For those of you who are musical comedy shut-ins, the story of the show, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, roughly follows the Old Testament story of Joseph’s sale into bondage by his brothers and his subsequent rise to fame. Joseph was the second Webber/Rice collaboration and the first to be performed. Initially a cantata for a school glee club, the pair expanded it over several different incarnations at the urging of Lloyd Webber’s father, a professional musician. When Joseph reached its current running time of about 90 minutes, mercifully, they gave up.

People feel passionately about Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber and divide neatly into two camps: those who worship at their feet, and those who have had enough already. I join the many people who are not fans of the Rice/Webber collaboration in general and Joseph in particular. We all realize this is an early effort by two neophyte authors, but the lyrics sound like they were translated from the Dutch by a Latvian. There are also some rhymes that would set Lorenz Hart spinning in his tiny grave (“pajamas/farmers,” “boat is/notice,” and my favorite, “biscuit/district”).

Lloyd Webber’s score sounds like the result of an all-night game of musical Twister—right foot, Benjamin, left foot … calypso! Many of the songs in Joseph don’t feel like they belong together. You get a country/western number (“There’s One More Angel in Heaven”) followed by a 1920s tribute (“Potiphar”), an Elvis parody (“Son of the King”), an Apache dance (“Those Canaan Days”) and the aforementioned “Benjamin Calypso.” These are the liveliest numbers in the score; the connecting songs, the ones that move the plot along, are a different matter. They tend to repeat the same 16 bars with different lyrics, as if Lloyd Webber and Rice couldn’t wait to get past the boring storytelling part and back to the fun stuff.

In presenting a musical with a less than stellar pedigree, Oak Ridge Playhouse transcends every community theater cliché. Faced with the challenge of pulling the threads of this Dreamcoat together, director Law and his choreographer have hit upon a very clever idea: if the songs are homages to musical styles, they’ll make the production numbers tributes to other musical comedies. I saw sneaking references to A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls, Chicago, Cabaret, and Les Misérables over the course of the evening, and each one was both a surprise and a delight. Law’s command of the storytelling was particularly strong, and he had the good sense to keep the production moving. Minimal scenic elements were used to good effect, and Williams’ choreography filled the tiny Oak Ridge Playhouse stage nicely, never asking too much or too little from his ensemble of volunteer actors.

Over the years this venerable company has built up quite a roster of dedicated amateur actors, and there were many pleasant moments from this enthusiastic company. Cheryl Howard as the Narrator has a clear, strong voice, and sang with precision. The role doesn’t require much acting range, but she kept us interested in the goings-on without falling into the trap of telling us what to feel at every step of the way. A newcomer to the Playhouse, Ryan Worden, made for a delightful Joseph, primarily because he seemed baffled and bemused by all of the very strange characters who surrounded him. Together they kept the tone of the show buoyant but engaging. The chorus of brothers had an infectious enthusiasm for all their numbers, kicking up their heels or bewailing their fate with equal vigor.

The smaller roles and specialty numbers also had moments that lightly tickled. I could have used more Elvis from Dan Maxwell’s Pharaoh—like a sweat-soaked silk scarf to toss to the chorus, perhaps—but he was a real crowd-pleaser and sang the number well.

So if you like your Webber/Rice light and fluffy, Joseph is a bouncy production that should satisfy the adults and please the kids. Law and company have shaken the dust off an old, tattered Dreamcoat.

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