Hillbarn Theatre has brought back an early Andrew Lloyd Webber favorite for this year’s holiday season, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. While the work is Lloyd Webber’s second musical collaboration with Tim Rice immediately following The Likes of Us, it was his first to be publicly performed as a short, though it wasn’t fully staged until after Jesus Christ Superstar made its successful debut. With its catchy music, Joseph… is a colorful, family-friendly show based on the biblical story of Joseph’s coat of many colors.
Lloyd Webber hadn’t settled into his later, classically infused, popular musical style in his early works, and Joseph… runs the gamut parodying everything from country-western to pop to calypso to classic rock’n’roll as the story unfolds. Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, is hated by his 11 brothers because of the blatant favoritism demonstrated by their father bestowing upon Joseph, the coat of many colors. His brothers sell him into slavery, but through his wits, his humanity, and his knack for reading dreams, Joseph survives. He eventually becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man until he and his brothers cross paths again, but this time Joseph has the advantage.
Director Nancy Fitzgerald-Metzler has staged a captivating and colorful production. Together with choreographer Brandy Mieszkowski, Fitzgerald-Metzler utilizes the large cast in a relatively small space without creating a traffic jam. They instead create a kaleidoscope of color and movement that flows easily from number to number. Soloists and ensemble members alike are confident in their precise execution of the sometimes complex choreography and scene transitions.
Lindsay Stark is the narrator, guiding the children’s chorus in “Pied Piper” fashion through the story in song. Her pleasant voice is strong, and her manner is gentle. While the addition of the junior choir is optional, the children she leads are attentive and energetic, although their voices are sometimes buried by the recorded accompaniment provided by The MT Pit L.L.C.
Noel Anthony holds the title role, and he plays an appealing Joseph. His fluid manner and rich singing voice draw the audience in, keeping them rooting for him throughout the story.
Of note is the exceptionally strong men’s ensemble playing Joseph’s 11 brothers and doubling in several auxiliary roles throughout the show. They have strong voices, and they move smoothly as they glide across the stage with aplomb. They have an especially nice vocal moment toward the end of “Those Canaan Days” when they break into an impressively harmonious a cappella section. The three featured dancers from the chorus, Daniel Harper, Gary Stanford Jr., and Kevin Stanford, add a nice flair in several of the more complicated dances.
The women’s ensemble is also solid, although they aren’t featured as much as the men in this show. Still, they have strong voices and are capable dancers as they shine in several of the larger numbers. Two particularly nice ensemble dances are of note. The first is in “Joseph’s Coat” as the wives swirl downstage with scarves displaying the colors in the lyrics as they weave through Joseph’s brothers in a river of textures. The other occurs in “Go, Go, Go Joseph” as the bulk of the men’s and women’s ensembles don what look like Egyptian tinged versions of the Raiders’ Cheerleading squad’s costumes, silver pom-poms and all, as they break into an intricate routine. Even the kids eagerly swing silver pom-poms from above to add some sparkle to the moment.
The set is simple; a sprawling gold-accented, blue jungle gym with a slide upstage center, all seemingly from a schoolyard. The arrangement is exceedingly practical as it gives the children’s choir a place to perch above the action. When the children first enter, they are all carrying backpacks, and they appear as a bunch of students playing at recess, scampering over the jungle gym, and finally settling downstage to listen intently as the narrator begins the story. Once the “Prologue” completes, the kids climb up onto the platforms across the bars of the central structure. The reason for the backpacks becomes clear later as the kids provide props for quick changes throughout the story.
Musical director Greg Sudmeier conducts the cast over video monitors visible in the house, and he also cues the recording so, outside of a few early missteps, synchronization isn’t a problem. Still, the hearty production has a few other deficiencies.
The accompaniment provided by the recording is fully customizable, and the adult cast members all wear microphones, so the cast/instrumental mix is tunable. Unfortunately, that balance isn’t quite perfected in all cases. Bob Fitzgerald’s Jacob isn’t a strong singer, so despite being mic’d, he is often overshadowed by the recording in his solo selections. By contrast, when singing as part of the men’s chorus, he blends reasonably well. As mentioned above, the children also tend to lose the balance battle, but they are not amplified.
While slightly gimmicky as written, Pharaoh, is the King, the King of rock’n’roll that is. Michael D. Reed’s Elvis impersonation isn’t bad, but he could use a slight sound boost (or the accompaniment could come down a bit) as he too has a little difficulty being heard during part of his story.
There are warning signs in the lobby regarding the use of loud rock’n’roll music which those with sensitive hearing should heed. The signs also warn of lights flashing at the audience. Some spot lights are rotated, and there are periods, primarily during scene changes, when light flashes through the audience repeatedly. That can be rather blinding and annoying as it is slightly overused.
Overall though, Hillbarn’s two-hour romp through the Egyptian desert provides a veritable holiday dessert of color and verve that will have you tapping your feet through the very last note. And if you miss something along the way, fear not. The “Megamix” recaps the entire story in a flashy, “white-hot” finale. Opening night, the cast received a standing ovation – what better way to begin a run?
What: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA94404
When: Thursdays – Sundays through 23 December 2012.
See http://hillbarntheatre.org/joseph-and-the-amazing-technicolor-dreamcoat/ for more information or to order tickets.
(Photo courtesy of Hillbarn Theatre)