BWW Reviews: JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECNICOLOR DREAMCOAT is More Than 'Amazing' at The Ogunquit Playhouse
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's names have become synonymous with musical theatre. Even if you've never seen a musical on stage or don't care for the art form it's almost a definite that you have at least heard of their works: Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Phantom of the Opera. JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT is yet another highlight of the pair's resume, and having been performed all over the world for nearly 30 years, it has become a beloved favorite of theatre goers. The Ogunquit Playhouse's new production of JOSEPH... will leave no doubt in your mind as to why this musical is so loved.
JOSEPH'S road to the stage is relatively atypical for most musicals. Originally, Webber and Rice wrote it as a 15 minute piece to be performed at the Colet Court School in London in the late 60's. After a few successful and critically acclaimed productions, the show just kept growing. Soon it became a 35 minute piece, and later in 1969 a concept album was produced. The first full scale production was staged in 1970, but it wasn't until 1973 that the show was presented in its full form in the West End. Nearly a decade later in 1982, JOSEPH premiered on Broadway. Over its storied history it has been performed worldwide in successful national tours, domestic and international companies, and became a straight to DVD sensation starring Donny Osmond in the title role.
The show is based on the story of JOSEPH'S "coat of many colors" from the book of Genesis in The Bible. It follows JOSEPH (Clay Aiken), his father Jacob (Bill Nolte), and JOSEPH'S 11 brothers: Reuben (Craig Laurie), Simeon (Casey Garvin), Levi (Alex Puette), Naphtali (Scott Difford), Issachar (Ken Arpino), Asher (Erik Magnus), Dan (Drew King), Zebulun (Nathan Chang), Gad (Andre Jordan), Benjamin (Kory Geller) and Judah (Nicholas Ward). Being Jacob's favorite son, JOSEPH is given a coat of many colors which causes his brothers to be jealous. They cast him into slavery, and well...that's basically the story! Along the way of course, JOSEPH meets a host of various characters including Potiphar (Bill Nolte, who also plays Jacob and the Baker), Mrs. Potiphar (sultry, long-legged dancer Anne Otto), The Butler (Craig Laurie), The Pharaoh (Matthew Ragas) as well Jacob's many wives (Tiana Checcia Jones, Anne Otto, Bridget Noltimier, Lizzy Palmer and Leigh Scheffler). Playing other various roles is the talented ensemble: Colby Kingston, Piper Kingston, Shae Kingston (yes, the three ladies are sisters), and Lauren Lukacek. Last, but my no means least is the Narrator (Keala Settle) who paints the story for us every step of the way.
Part of the brilliance of JOSEPH is Webber and Rice's choice to write several of the songs in very different musical styles. Not only does this add to the kitsch and comedy of the show, but it also allows for little love letters to a host of other shows and artists. From 20's style jazz to country and western to a very distinct tribute to Elvis Presley, the score's constant variance in theme keeps the audience engaged, and tells the story fully as there are very few lines of spoken dialogue.
What makes this production so different from other productions of JOSEPH is a clear, precise vision and it's execution in the hands of director/choreographer Jayme McDaniel. As the audience enters The Playhouse, they are greeted with fresh-faced youngsters on stage, playing with jump ropes, kick balls and storybooks (at the performance I attended the young performers were: Laila Adawadkar, Dylan Cao, Sophia Estes, Mary Grace Gilliland, Breckyn Ginchereau, Livia Ginchereau, Ali Golodner, Caroline Hall, Joseph Hall, Katherine Hall, Analise Marin, Lauren Marin, Haley Moody, Yamilah Saravong, Chloe Schechter, Isabella Schechter, Tristan Sullivan, Rosalie Toupin and Kimberly works. Starting on August 13th until closing the performers will be slightly different. The talented young actors performing from August 13th until the show's closing on August 25th are Laila Adawadkar, Kylee Brown, Sophia Estes, Anna Grace Gagnon, Mary Grace Gilliland, Ali Golodner, Taygan Kosky, Analise Marin, Lauren Marin, Haley Moody, Nina Morse, Brooke Nevins, Dolly O'Brien, Sophie Patenaude, Chloe Schechter, Isabella Schechter, Isabella Sciacca, Tristan Sullivan, Rosalie Toupin and Kimberly Works). The large ensemble of younger performers is used throughout the show, whether it be singing (beautifully, clearly and cleanly, I might add) or as the occasional passing farm animal (adorable children holding two dimensional sheep...I mean...c'mon....). Some directors would shy away from using such a large ensemble of youngsters, but because they are so well directed it works to Mr. McDaniel's advantage. His choreography is not only brilliant and appropriate to the piece, it changes in style with nearly every song to fit the various musical styles (as I had mentioned before). Whether it be his Sharks and Jets-esque choreography for the brothers in "Joseph Dreams" or his island- inspired dance in the "Benjamin Calypso", his strong work is well showcased by his talented team of dancers. Too often directors try to make the piece too contemporary, or try to do too many things with it. I applaud Mr. McDaniel for deciding to add splashes of contemporary references (the Narrator takes a picture of the cast and herself after the opening number on her iPhone), while keeping the majority of the show in the world of the approximate time period.
Mark Thompson's costume design echoes the director's strong choices by leaving the brothers in period garb (magnificently done, with just enough difference in each and every costume to make each brother stand out), and finding other places to dazzle the audience with his vision. Whether it be the blue suede shoe-clad dancers and Pharaoh, the go-go dance inspired closing of the first act, or the giant headdresses in "Song of the King", Mr. Thompson creates a colorful world that could jump off the pages of the bible just as easily as it could a children's storybook. And his many encarnations of JOSEPH'S coat are breathtaking. Richard Latta's lighting design only continues to gel this brilliant collaboration as his lights go from realistic, to contemporary theatrical, to making you feel like you are watching Beyonce in a 100,000 seat outdoor amphitheatre. He uses every color of the rainbow to complete the picture (even the panels on the proscenium light up in various Simon Says style patterns) and to make Robert Andrew Kovach's brilliant and functional set shine like a diamond. His use of curtains on the back wall to frame the giant JOSEPH book as the show begins, the various levels he creates, and the more stunning pieces (like JOSEPH'S golden chariot) all come together to complete the magical array. And under the musical direction of Eric Alsford the Ogunquit pit rocks and rolls its way through the show as amazingly as always. They navigate through the show's many genres effortlessly.
First and foremost, I will have to say that I have never watched American Idol. I've never been a big fan of the show's concept, nor am I really a fan of "pop" music. That said, I was BLOWN AWAY by Clay Aiken in the title role. His voice sounds limitless in the role to the point that it almost sounds TOO EASY for his versatile voice. I found myself wondering how many keys had been raised, or how many times he was singing an octave above what was written. His vocal display is truly astounding, and more than that it is always clear as bell and you never struggle to understand what he is singing. It was also refreshing to see a different take on JOSEPH; often times actors choose to make him boastful and almost full of himself. You can see from the very start that Mr. Aiken is a shy, humble JOSEPH who longs to be accepted by his brothers and it's his naïveté that brings upon his misfortune, not ill will. I was more than surprised by his turn in the second act as the Pharaoh's right hand man who attempts to trick his brothers. And his rendition of "Close Every Door" will bring you to your feet.
Perhaps even more impressive is the incomparable Keala Settle as the Narrator. It's little wonder why; Ms. Settle is not far removed from her triumphant portrayal of Norma Valverde in Broadway's Hands On A Hardbody, for which she received Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critic's Circle Award nominations. Her voice is truly something to behold. Powerful, clear and her precise diction leaves no doubt of the story she tells. Her adept riffs and veritable vocal acrobatics are always appropriate, soulful and...well....amazing. Aside from her praise-worthy vocals, Ms. Settle is so emotionally engaged in JOSEPH'S story, she becomes less an omniscient observer (as Narrators in this piece are often resigned to be), and more a faithful friend who facilitates every movement on stage, and offers support to JOSEPH every step of the way. Equally emotional and soul-stirring are the first sung words she sings in the Prologue, and by song's end she has prepared you for the vocal tour de force she is.
The perfectly coiffed pompadour and dashing good looks of Matthew Ragas' Pharaoh only give a glimpse at the Presely-esque performance he gives the audience. Another pleasant surprise, Mr. Ragas vocals are his own (powerful, adept and rock n' roll-tinged) and he merely gives a nod and a wink to the King, rather than do an impression or a "hubba hubba" style take on the role. More than a few women swooned when he was revealed to sing his tune; ladies, be forewarned. Bill Nolte is fatherly, comedic and a breath of fresh air in his various roles (Jacob/Potiphar/The Baker), and his booming baritone is an utter treat and surprise (perhaps it's because I've seen/done the show with actors who weren't singers). Craig Laurie's lead on "Canaan Days" is equally hilarious and pure genius (his Franglais accent will keep you laughing from start to finish) as are the featured dancers in the number, Bridget Noltimier and Casey Garvin. Alex Puettes' twangy "One More Angel in Heaven" will have you saying YEE-HAW before its finish, and Nicholas Ward's fantastic bass vocals in the "Benjamin Calypso" are so rich and soulful you'll be wishing you heard even more of the brilliant places the score lets his seemingly bottomless bass voice come through.
All in all, JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT at The Ogunquit Playhouse is a dazzling theatrical experience from start to finish. JOSEPH may have been done the world over, and you may have seen it a handful of times, but I doubt you have ever seen a production quite like this. Some theatergoers may complain that JOSEPH... is a fluffy piece of music theatre; are you seeing Medea? No. But if you are lucky enough to get tickets to Ogunquit's latest hit, I assure you that your expectations of the show will be met and exceeded. For tickets and more information, please visit www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.
Pictured: Clay Aiken as Joseph