BWW Review: JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, London Palladium
Oh Lord! The second Biblical Andrew Lloyd Webber opening of the week (taking his current London production total up to a whopping five from next month) is his early collaboration with Tim Rice, celebrating 50 years since its original concept album, and back home at the Palladium. But a joyfully fresh staging makes this a Joseph for 2019 - and a family-friendly summer hit.One major change is the expansion of the Narrator role to showcase the vaudevillian talents of Sheridan Smith; in some ways, it's very much Funny Girl 2: Now Even Funnier! Smith not only helms the story, but dons a beard and Northern growl to play Jacob, leads Joseph's brothers in a tap breakout, plays the spoons, gets her vamp on for Potiphar's wife, has a crack at can-can and street dance, dons an eye patch and a hunchback, and even pinches Pharaoh's nipples.
Not only is it a tour-de-force turn, but throughout she keeps contact with the audience, throwing in a cheeky "It's me!" during a new disguise, and adding winks and self-deprecating grins. The opening scene, in which she tells a campfire tale to her young charges, also sets this firmly as a story conjured by them: theatre as collaborative imagination, with Smith's "down with da kids", sparkly tracksuit-clad drama teacher figure setting them on the path.
That's reflected throughout Laurence Connor's bold, playful production. There's no reliance on video or overcomplicated set. Instead, Morgan Large's exuberant design feels like an upscaled version of a school show - camel heads stuck on bikes, toy sheep on skateboards, brightly coloured backdrops, Smith and the children in trainers throughout, and of course a rainbow-hued dreamcoat.
Connor and choreographer JoAnn M Hunter (who also collaborated on Lloyd Webber's School of Rock) brilliantly incorporate the younger performers throughout. On press night, Oliver Crouch made a superb mini despot as Potiphar, dressed in suspenders and tie - think a junior Jacob Rees-Mogg - while Mia Walsh was lifted aloft in the splits as a sassy goat, Luca Willemburg made a suitably starchy butler and Sacha Yarwood a particularly poignant Benjamin, cowering beneath the much larger Joseph.
The kids cast is also slotted into pretty much every number, bringing fun and energy - whether showing off some accomplished tumbling, clambering the bars of Joseph's cell or stroking their giant beards. There's some impressive vocals, too, and professionalism without affectation. They invite viewers, young and old, into the pleasure of storytelling.
Though the dominance of Smith's turn means it feels slightly as though any Joseph will do, Jac Yarrow nevertheless acquits himself well in his professional debut. He's a lithe, buoyant presence, eager, expressive and naturally engaging, but has a few vocal issues (perhaps exacerbated by first-night nerves) - a tendency to drop into speak-sing at the expense of phrasing and tone, and some tuning wobbles.
Lending the show the feeling of a family reunion, Jason Donovan is back, swapping Joseph for Pharaoh. He works the audience expertly during his big number, raising a big laugh with his wry groan as he staggers up from a climactic kneel, leans into the MGM high-octane camp of the gold lamé and guyliner, and studiously apes the Elvis moves. Singing wise, he starts a little shaky and mumbles the lyrics, but warms up into a big, crowd-pleasing finish.
The brothers are a cracking ensemble, two of their numbers the standouts of each act. In the first, Hunter cleverly builds on the country song pastiche to create an exhilarating hoedown that also utilises the sometimes underused but excellent female ensemble (shades of Michael Kidd's athletic work in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), while in the second, the French depression of "Those Canaan Days" is taken to delirious extremes - with a great added can-can gag, capped by a very funny lighting cue from Ben Cracknell. Richard Carson's Reuben and Michael Pickering's Simeon lead each with aplomb.
Throughout, the show feels fuelled by the wit of Lloyd Webber's parodic score (sounding wonderful here with a full orchestra) and, in particular, Rice's sublimely silly yet highly efficient lyrics; who else would rhyme "pyjamas" and "farmers"? It leans into the giddy fun of the piece, showing it's very much in on the joke, while (problematic calypso aside...) adding just enough of an update to also make it a convincingly contemporary production.
The one downside of Smith's skilled but ever-present clowning is that the drama's darker moments are compromised; the seduction that dooms Joseph to prison is pure slapstick, and she pulls us out of the story by constantly breaking the fourth wall. That should soften the scary bits for younger viewers, but others may wish for a little more jeopardy to balance the elation of numbers like the dance-tastic, clap-along "Megamix".
But this is otherwise a dream revival - and a lovely fit for a venue with such a rich history of variety entertainment. Go go go book!
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium until 7 September
See Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice at curtain call!
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton