BWW Review: Studio Tenn's Deliciously Campy, Fun and Sexy JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
It's been a busy and atypically tumultuous year for Franklin-based Studio Tenn, what with the departure of founding artistic director Matt Logan, and interim artistic director Benji Kern has had his work cut out for him to ensure that the company remain on a strong financial footing while staying true to its artistic aspirations. Logan set the bar high and Kern and company have chosen to put their stamp on the company's ascent by changing out two of the season's previously announced productions with new titles, which explains how Always, Patsy Cline took over the slot originally occupied by the planned Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and how the season's final production - Damn Yankees - was replaced by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
With Joseph, which opened last night at Franklin's Jamison Theater inside The Factory at Franklin, Studio Tenn further establishes its brand: presenting exceptional musical theater with production qualities that might rival Broadway, performed by a cast (a dreamcast, if you will) made up of actors from Nashville, New York and various and sundry points in between. The show's title role is entrusted to New York-based Jesse Michels, who oozes great charm and is fairly dripping in sex appeal which ensures the audience is riveted to his performance - but it's his gorgeous baritenor and prominent stage presence that guarantees this production of Joseph is appealing and we daresay noteworthy.
Studio Tenn's de facto leading lady Laura Matula (wearing an inexplicably blue wig and towering, bedazzled stilettos) returns to their stage to take on the role of the Narrator, who guides along the action with dexterity, and Kern has surrounded his leading duo with an impressive ensemble of musical theatre triple threats (including Austin Querns, Liam Searcy, Bobby Hogan, Ethan Pugh and Kyle Caress, all products of the Belmont University Musical Theatre program, along with area favorites such as Matthew Carlton, Everett Tarlton, Curtis Reed, Joe Beuerlein, Devon Buchanan and Jeff Sundheim) - but more about them later...
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is the first of the many collaborative efforts by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (Lloyd Webber supplies the music, Rice the libretto for the mostly sung-through musical), first produced in 1972 at the Edinburgh International Festival. The musical is based on the story from Genesis about the young, fine and upstanding Joseph and his "coat of many colors" (not to be confused with Dolly Parton's outerwear of the same name). The favorite son of the Biblical prophet Jacob, Joseph falls into disfavor with his 11 brothers when he is gifted with a multi-colored garment from his doting dad. Feeling excluded and under-appreciated, the brothers hatch a plot to rid themselves of their sibling and they end up selling him into slavery, setting up a plot that sounds operatic in scale but which remains as down-to-earth as any conflicts between family members continue to be here in the 21st century.
Lloyd Webber utilizes various musical genres in telling the story of Joseph with wit and intelligence - country-western, calypso, French balladry, Elvis Presley-inspired rockabilly, bubble gum pop, disco and even rap is employed to relate the tale in order to appeal to audiences regardless of their age or background. Originally written as a cantata for performance by a cast of younger performers still at school in Britain, Lloyd Webber and Rice (then 19 and 23 at the time they fashioned the cantata that had been commissioned to write a piece for a school choir) have revisited their material time and again to add more meat to its bones, as it were, ultimately fleshing out the work to a scant 90 minutes or so that is entertaining and appealing with its own inherent charm and brevity. In an obvious homage to its rather humble origins, an uncredited children's choir is onstage in the Studio Tenn production at various points to add their angelic voices (particularly during "Any Dream Will Do" which starts off the show just after Matula's rendition of the show's prologue, which frames the story) to the wondrous sound produced by the top-flight group of vocal talents among the cast.
No matter your religious background (you might have grown up in church or you may now even find yourself in rebellion against its teachings), Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is good theater with a story adapted in such clever fashion - and staged herein with an over-the-top, campy sensibility - that you'll respond affirmatively to the onstage hijinks perpetrated by Kern's cast, who perform with great gusto under musical director Jason Tucker's guidance, while cavorting about to grand effect, thanks to Anna Perry's energetic, athletic and soul-stirring choreography that's sure to leave you breathless (although the cast certainly seems none the worse for wear).
The show lends itself to unique interpretations and its family-friendly message allows for it to be enjoyed by audiences of all types. Kern and his creative team approach the material with humor and bring it to life with zany, campy abandon - at one point (well, two actually, at the end of Act One and again at the top of the second stanza), two of the actors playing a pair of Joseph's brothers are dressed in drag, baby brother Benjamin (Easton Curtis) clutches a teddy bear throughout to indicate he's the baby brother in the family and there's a FedEx truck (or a reasonable facsimile of one) and a golf cart thrown in for good measure to up the theatrical ante. You'd best suspend your disbelief the very minute the lights go down to signal the start of the show and to give yourself over to the magic of live theater to transform and transport.
The aforementioned Michels is terrific as Joseph, commanding the stage with a startling blend of confidence and bravado that serves the character well and provides the audience with an involving conduit to what transpires during the show. His performance of "Close Every Door to Me," which comes late in the first act after Joseph is imprisoned by Potiphar, is particularly moving with Michels showing much emotion and unexpected depth to bring the lyrics to life. Likewise, Matula shows off her skillful turn of musical phrase throughout the show and manages to remain upright even as she keeps her balance atop a pair of heels so tall they seem death-defying.
Joe Beuerlein very nearly brings the proceedings to a halt with his raucous turn as the Elvis-inspired Pharaoh in what is the best production number of the show - "Song of the King," "Pharaoh's Dream Explained" and "King Of My Heart" are combined to elicit a frenzied, joyous and altogether genuine response from the audience - in which every member of the ensemble (including its two female members, the versatile and game-for-anything Arden Taylor and Emily Urbanski) shines like the stars they are surely meant to be. Matt Carlton lends his theatrical gravitas to the proceedings as Jacob and Potiphar and all the actors portraying the brothers are afforded time in the spotlight in which to put their talents on full-display. Curtis Reed leads the gang in a rousing "Those Canaan Days" and Devon Buchanan takes control in the Caribbean-flavored "Benjamin Calypso," to be certain, but there are smaller moments, but just as significantly present and awe-inspiring, in which the other ensemble members are in the spotlight.
Tucker and his nine-member (Kelsi Fulton, Luke Easterling, Chris Leidhecker, Scot Corey, Lindsey Miller, Tara Johnson, Matt Davich, Cassie Shudak and Kaitlyn Raitz) band perform the Lloyd Webber score with confidence and aplomb, never sounding an ill note while once again proving that there's no place in the world in which musical theater has a more solid foundation than right here in Music City.
Mitch White's eye-popping scenic design provides a functional, creative space in which the actors are allowed to play and the production's projections - credited to MA2LA - makes grand use of the company's new LED proscenium to create designs that are contemporary and innovative. Blake Danford's costumes (in particular, his rendering of the eponymous multi-hued outerwear is impeccably tailored and exquisitely styled) - along with Allison Hearn's hair and makeup - give the actors visual cues to their portrayals and give the audience some stunning visuals to take home with them to accompany the musical earworms that are likely to bedevil them for days to come. Kelly Scheuman's lighting design and Eliza Garrity's sound design add to the overall impact of the production.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Benji Kern. Musical direction by Jason Tucker. Choreography by Anna Perry. Presented by Studio Tenn at the Jamison Theatre, The Factory at Franklin. Through June 2. For details, go to www.studiotenn.com or call (615) 541-8200. Running time: One hour, 50 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Studio Tenn closes out its ninth season with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, opening at the Jamison Theater in Franklin on Friday, May 17, and continuing through June 2.
Jesse Michels takes on the title role, with Studio Tenn favorite Laura Matula as the Narrator.
Spanning a multitude of musical genres from country-western and calypso to bubble-gum pop and rock and roll, the Tony Award-winning musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat features a large ensemble cast under the direction of Studio Tenn interim artistic director Benji Kern.
Based on the Biblical story of Jacob's favorite son Joseph, the musical brings to the stage the tale of the young man - who is blessed with vivid dreams that foretell the future, but who finds himself in the center of a colorful, comedic family-friendly tale of betrayal and jealousy that leads him into servitude to a hilariously Elvis-like Pharaoh.
Kern's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is described as "a colorful combination of family fun, show-stopping designs, and the signature Broadway-level talent expected of Studio Tenn productions."
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat takes the stage at the Jamison Theater located in the Factory at Franklin from May 17 through June 2. Tickets and more information are available online at www.studiotenn.com, or in person by calling (615) 541-8200.