The set-up: If you're feeling a bit sleepy when Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat begins, don't worry, the show will slap you awake fast. And hard. This is the most frenetic show in memory, fast-paced, constantly on the go, terrifically cheesy. Nobody and nothing stops. Ever. It's the siege of Leningrad as pop video concert. Light cues come and go like an aerial bombardment, the chintzy set pieces (a staircase or two, a table, some platforms, backdrop curtains) are shoved around by the cast and then shoved away; and the non-stop video designs by Daniel Brodie, which a few times really do look wonderful if never truly magical, are the Broadway equivalent to obsessive compulsive disorder.
The execution: Although this first collaboration between composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice has had various incarnations ever since it premiered as a cantata at a London boys school in 1968, you can date this pop opera circa 1973, after its West End production, although that wasn't its final version. There were concerts, a concept CD, more tinkering, another London production, then a transfer to off-off-Broadway at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and finally, a Broadway debut in 1982. Coming as it did on the heels of Webber and Rice's phenomenons, Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Evita (1979), Joseph did well enough, but didn't have the pedigree. It's lasted much longer on the regional circuit and as a trusted mainstay of high schools.
But this show deserves better than it gets from this recent U.S. tour, newly directed and choreographed by Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler (In the Heights) who seems to relish overcompensating for the show's slimness. Sweet lord, how do you differentiate Joseph's 11 brothers? Not even Genesis could keep them straight. The episode with Potiphar's wife is dispatched in the Narrator's breezy "Potiphar," when leggy wife, like Gwen Verdon's Lola, shimmies in heat, flings herself at innocent Joe, is discovered by doddering husband, and quickly disappears back into the chorus line. When each plot point is a new song maybe it is better to keep everything awhirl and ablaze with razzle-dazzle so nobody'll have time to think about it.
If it just wouldn't look like a two-bit Vegas revue. There are more lighting elements to Howell Binkley's design than a World Fair's pavilion of electricity, but all the technical wizardry of Broadway cannot make the uninteresting visuals shine bright. The projections, which apparently don't have an off-switch, are tacky and cartoony, and not in a clever way. The best visual gag goes by in a flash: when the starving brothers go to Egypt to beg for food, their trek is seen as if on a rotating drum as palm trees, desert, and pyramids emerge and disappear. A sign flicks by: NILEWOOD.
Yes, the sung-through musical is padded with encores, and the story's as slight as the two lead men are beefy, but the music saves the day. Webber's songs positively bounce, a cornucopia of pastiche numbers, each bright, cheery, and memorable. There's bubblegum pop (the Narrator's "Prologue"); soft rock (Joseph's "Close Every Door"); country twang (Reuben's "One More Angel in Heaven"); Elvis swivel (Pharaoh's "Song of the King"); a Jacques Brel knockoff (Simeon's "Those Canaan Days"); and even a sprightly Jamaican reggae (Judah's "Benjamin Calypso"). The mash up works, giving the entire enterprise a delightfully oddball sense of humor, something Sir Andrew has sadly misplaced along the way to his checking account. Pharaoh as Elvis is inspired daffiness. Ryan Williams, as if chiseled by Chippendales, gyrates impressively and milks the gag shamelessly for everything it's worth, and then some. How else to play it?
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Husband-and-wife stars Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, as Narrator and Joseph, have made a smooth transition from American Idol to fresh Broadway babes. Both have light lyric voices that give them innocence and youth, but there's a lack of substance that tends to push them into the background, even when pinned centerstage in a spotlight. For all his physical presence - Young is buff, tall, and looks great in those pseudo harem pants - he doesn't yet command the stage. Both actors are appealing and charming, but our eyes too easily drift off them. Granted, Joseph has no character to speak of (he never changes from the arrogant and egotistical favorite son, no matter what troubles befall him), but Young can't find anything within to hold our interest. He's cute and sings well, but he can't hold the light, yet.
Of the interchangeable brothers, three get bouncy set pieces, so naturally they stand out. The three actors also put across their songs with refreshingly old-fashioned showbiz chutzpah, which, at least, has not gone out of fashion, or style. Brian Golub, out of an Appalachian Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, boot scoots deftly; Max Kumangai limbos through the Caribbean; and Paul Castree, channeling Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, stops the show with his French-fried cafe song, accompanied by a rousing dinner scene with clanging plates and silverware.
The verdict: Webber and Rice would go on, later and separately, to some impressive accomplishments (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Aladdin), but Joseph has its own special sparkle. It has the giddy rush of kids out on a lark, making music as they see fit, laughing at the world. If only this frantic Theatre Under the Stars production wouldn't smother their teen spirit and let them be kids again.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continues through March 29 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $37.25-$123.50.