The setup: Whether you embrace or avoid contemporary musical theater, you've heard of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, he of the dancing, spandex-clad kittycats and singing choo-choo trains on roller skates, the man who (with the able assistance of iconic source material and talented collaborators) gave us the desire to have Argentina not cry for us and the huge, falling chandelier of The Phantom of the Opera, which helped whet the appetite for outsize spectacle that consumes our stage to this day.
If you were standing right in front of Baron Lloyd-Webber, particularly if you were in the United Kingdom at the time, you'd properly address him as "My Lord" (which feels a bit too spot-on for the man who scored Jesus Christ Superstar). This is because he has not only been knighted for his service, he's been awarded a peerage. He gets to serve in Parliament. His children are known as "The Honourable." But considering how we choose our own legislators lately, I'm not gonna squawk.
See also: Musical of Musicals (The Musical) Proves Everything Old Can Be New Again Curtains: The Phantom of the Opera Tour at Gammage Bible Belter The execution: Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote and workshopped Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat before Lloyd Webber's first big hit, the relatively low-key Jesus Christ Superstar, but Joseph was not fully produced in Britain or the U.S. until after Superstar had cemented the team's fame.
Up against Nine and Dreamgirls at the 1982 Tony Awards, Joseph won a resounding none of the seven categories in which it was nominated. (To be fair, that was back when there was solid competition among new musicals.)
In any case, the show (another completely sung-through rock opera) is so family-friendly, and its time-honored story so comfortably accessible, that it's been a favorite of producers and audiences from the get-go. Arizona Broadway Theatre's current production features superhuman energy and solid musical chops.
If you look at this play from one side, you can't ignore embarrassingly lazy lyrics, pedestrian melodies, and a structure that practically guarantees a hot mess. The very first time I ever saw it years ago, that was the overall impression. Yet all it takes is talent, commitment, and a fearless embrace of some good old-fashioned goofiness to make the show work, and that's what this company's done.
Essentially, the story of Old Testament Joseph, his brothers, and his adventures in Egypt is set in a series of vignettes framed by a singing narrator. In this case, it's ABT fave Laura Berger (The Taffetas, Miracle on 34th Street) and her 100% authentic baby bump.
There's also a children's choir that stays on stage the whole time, here, which seems a good choice for this production. They start out on an evening field trip to NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art's Egyptian pavilion, and that's a creative way for Paul Black's scenic design to bring the requisite elements in from the very beginning.
Each musical number is in a distinct style, ranging from calypso to country to casino, with a fair number of bland pop entries filling out the mix. My own favorite has always been "Those Canaan Days," a French cabaret-style lament with cheesy accents, and it pretty much kills.
I've seen stronger dancing in other mountings of Joseph, but nobody more enthusiastic than this ensemble, the members of which do everything -- dude who plays Jacob rocks Potiphar as well, one of Joseph's brothers plays Pharaoh Rameses in the traditional white-jumpsuit Elvis way (and he's completely ripped and smokin' as well), and everyone does an extra costume change to ultra-mod Carnaby-Street-style duds for "Go, Go, Go Joseph," the Act I closer.
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The lyrics of "Song of the King," in which Pharaoh recounts his dreams of fat and lean golden cattle and ears of corn, tend to feel hard to decipher. It's partly because they're always gargled by an Elvis impersonator and partly because, in this version, Adam Berger's small band is tight, but also loud. Sometimes soloists were also hard to make out. But brush up on your children's Bible stories, and you should be fine.
The verdict: Joseph is a refreshing return to a musical that, though it has big numbers and pretty costumes, doesn't rely on over-the-top trickery to keep your interest. And ABT's production this summer is beautifully sung and acted.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continues through Sunday, August 18, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets are $65.50 to $84.50 and include a two-course dinner and drinking water (gratuity not included). Show-only tickets are also available, but geez, you're in Peoria and you have to eat something. Purchase tix here or call 623-776-8400. Appetizers, other beverages, and cocktails and desserts crafted especially for the show are available at additional cost.