BWW Review: The Hale's JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
Webber and Rice's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a little theatrical engine that could. The show started out as a 20-minute commissioned "pop cantata," written for a choir performance at a high school in London. It was well received and grew, little by little, into a full-length opera, then exponentially exploded when the writing duo became superstars (reflecting that moniker in the show that made them household names).
Joseph is, at its heart, a gentle re-telling of an Old Testament story, filtered through the lens of London's alternative theatre movement of the 1960s and 70s. It's a mashup of musical styles - show tunes, country and western, calypso, cool jazz, tango, French cabaret, and 1960s rockabilly and pop rock. Webber and Rice, impossibly young (only 17 and 21) themselves when the project launched, sought to make the story accessible to young people by devising touchstones to which they could relate. There's no fourth wall, and there are no restrictions where time and place are concerned. That the Pharaoh is an insanely over-the-top Elvis impersonator - or the ghost of a late life Elvis himself - makes perfect sense in the world of Joseph. But it is a story with a beginning, middle and end, a tale of jealousy, greed, suffering, sorrow, redemption and reconciliation.
The Hale's splendid space, an arena with state of the art technology, is capable of providing astounding production values to support sumptuous musical theatre. It's also a lovely setting for simple, intimate performance.
This production of Joseph is neither. It is a bombastic, over amplified, superciliously staged spectacle.
The first moment of the opening weekend's matinee, featuring Alanna Kalbfleisch's narrator, saw that dazzling performer left in the dark by an over-zealous spotlight. Kalbfleisch is perfectly cast. Her warm enthusiasm and ridiculously beautiful voice suit the material so well, it's as if the role were written for her. Sadly, in a not great, dark wig and a spangly black evening pantsuit, Kalbfleisch is often lost amid the technicolor free-for-all. At times, her moments take place in the dark.
Staging theatre-in-the-round is tricky, but it's what the Hale does, and we've seen them do it brilliantly. Wildly talented, vastly experienced director/choreographer Cambrian James' staging is at times crisp and clear and spot on. At other times - for this critic most times during the Joseph performance - there is simply too much going on to follow the storyline and appreciate nuance. There are huge beats of the play when entire sections of the house look at actor's backs - lengthy swaths of production numbers when Kalbfleisch, as narrator, is responsible for communicating vital information. In spite of her excellent enunciation, we can't make out what she's saying when we can't see her face.
An enormous problem for the show is the sound. The canned music, along with the ensemble's and soloist's microphones, seem to be set at the same unreasonably hot decibel level. Though the venue seats hundreds, every seat is close enough to the stage to see and hear any competent performer without amplification. Additionally, when body mics are used, the sound all comes from the same direction at the same level. Audiences must scramble to find the moving mouth to identify which character is singing/speaking solo. The venue boasts listening devices for patrons who want or need them, so why the over-the-top volume boost? The show doesn't call for it. I've seen I don't even know how many excellent acoustic versions. Compounding the issue are the godawfully ugly body microphones that are becoming standard when regional theatre decides to get loud. They're "flesh colored," which - please. They stick out of wigs, collars, et cetera, and the transmitter packs create bulges and are often in plain view. The cords are everywhere. It's distracting as hell, and so not necessary.
The magnificent, always superb Mark Kleinman plays both Joseph's father, Jacob, and the Potiphar, to whom Joseph is sold into slavery. Kleinman digs deep, even when playing parts with less stage time than his usual central characters. Whenever he is onstage, Kleinman commands attention, and, along with Kalbfleisch, provides moments of authenticity and pathos. However, even Kleinman, with a voice that can shake the rafters in La Scala, while singing at the top of his lungs, could barely be heard above the thunderous cacophony at the Hale on Saturday.
Perhaps it's the show's Disney cruise-ship show aesthetics, but there simply aren't any stakes for Matt Krantz's Joseph. It's hard to get invested with him, which we must do if we're to care at all about the story. Krantz has a range that can handle the demanding singing role, but his voice sounds like two different performers. His baritone is rich and solid, and his tenor is light and nasal. Krantz is talented, and no doubt will smooth out the transition in the years to come.
Stand out performances include Stephen Serna as the Pharaoh, Aaron Ford as Judah and Nathan Spector as Reuben.
Joseph isn't a woman's show. When it was first performed, a male played the narrator. Eventually, it occurred to the authors that there was room in the storytelling for the voice of a mother-sister-daughter-aunt-female-friend. The women's ensemble is talented and fun to watch - just mostly unchallenged and charged with performing vacuous content.
The ensemble, as a whole, is uneven and seemed a tad insecure on Saturday, but the show runs several more weeks, and will tighten up.
The fun, glitzy costumes are coordinated by Mary Atkinson with Tia Hawkes credited as stitcher. That might mean they were rented or borrowed from Utah's Hale that did the show earlier this year. Props are by McKenna Carpenter and Monica Christiansen (who also painted the set), with wigs and makeup by the director. Listed in the program is Brian Daily, as "Set Technical Director," which, again, suggests the materials may have been brought in and retrofitted.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat plays at Hale Centre Theatre through October 7th. Tickets for the performances are priced at $20 for youths ages 5 through 17, and $32 for adults. Tickets for groups of ten or more are $24 each, while various packages of season tickets for all or some of Hale's productions are available at $24 per performance. Call the Hale Theatre box office at 480-497-1181 or visit the Hale Theatre website at www.HaleTheatreArizona.com for more details and to purchase tickets.