'Joseph' cast

Shtick adds vivacity, ambiguity to Mercury Theatre’s re-envisioned ‘Joseph’

By Bob Abelman

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was written in the late-1960s by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who were themselves in their early ’20s.

Inexperienced at creating original storylines, they borrowed from the Old Testament and staged the tale of Jacob and his 12 sons.

Still working on finding a distinctive musical voice to call their own, ”Joseph” is chock-full of well-established styles, including pop (“Go, Go, Go Joseph”), ragtime (“Potiphar”), country western (“One More Angel in Heaven”) and reggae (“Benjamin’s Calypso”).

Not yet confident at creating dialogue, they didn’t write any. The show is sung from start to finish.
Their imprudence as young artists gave “Joseph” an infectious playfulness that helped make it one of the most enduring shows in the American musical theater catalog.

Director Pierre-Jacques Brault has upped the show’s playfulness quotient in Mercury Theatre Company’s current production by setting it in an MGM soundstage during the Classical era of Hollywood cinema. Here, during the filming of his epic story, Joseph’s amazing coat brings Technicolor to a black and white world populated with iconic actors, including Charlie Chaplin, Mae West and the Marx Brothers.

The soundstage concept is a bit muddled and occasionally at odds with the show’s intentions, but it adds layers of entertaining shtick to the storytelling and provides Brault and his designers – Nichols Thornburg (scenic), Michael Jarett (lighting) and Katelyn Jackson (costume) – with plenty of opportunities to engage in creative staging on a multi-tier performance space.

One of the best examples of this is an enchanting, pantomimed reinvention of “Those Canaan Days” featuring Brian Marshall as Charlie Chaplin. Not as successful are musical numbers where character impersonations are less pertinent and on point.

Brault’s vision nicely streamlines the production of this musical by casting only 12 actors (Kelvette Beacham, Jonathan Bova, Sophia Dennis, Emily Grodzik, Marshall, Courtney Anne Nelson, Devin Pfeiffer, Paige Schiller, Melissa Siegel, Michael Swain-Smith, Sunayna Smith and Bill Wetherbee) to play the brothers and all other characters.

He takes full advantage of this talented ensemble’s vocal strength, ear for harmony and diverse personalities by divvying up solos and having everyone partake in dance breaks jam-packed with his creative choreography. They also share the show’s narration, which is a task traditionally assigned to a single featured performer.

The typically massive children’s chorus is also limited to a highly affable and capable few (Claire Daugherty, Ryan Humphrey, Madelyn Low, Emma McClelland, Sarah Ramalah, Cayla See and Juliana Tate), masquerading as the Little Rascals. Sadly, having ensemble members serve as jacks of all trades throughout this 90-minute production results in some being the master of few during an energetic, entertaining but error-prone opening night performance. Despite this shortcoming, it is Webber and Rice’s songs and their witty lyrics that matter most in “Joseph” and their performance – supported by a small but capable on-stage orchestra under Eddie Carney’s direction – is wonderful.

Many are sung by the delightful Brandon Schumacker in the title role, a triple-threat performer whose six-pack abs get so much stage time that they should get their own credit in the program. Schumacker sells everything he does with immense charm and confidence, with his rendition of “Close Every Door” being particularly show-stopping.

Kudos to Mercury for breathing new life into this often performed and usually overproduced musical, and for taking creative risks that, for the most part, pay off. CV

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by Mercury Theatre Company
WHERE: Notre Dame College’s Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid
WHEN: Through Aug. 12
TICKETS & INFO: $16-$20, call 216-771-5862 or visit mercurytheatrecompany.org



Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2018 Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 3, 2018.

Lead image: The cast of “Joseph” | Photo / Amanda Kranz Photography

Mason Henning as Robbie and Kennedy Ellis as Velcro. Photo / Daren Stahl Photography

Mercury offers feel-good boy-meets-boy fairytale, ‘Soho Cinders’

By Bob Abelman

Composer George Stiles and lyricist Anthony Drewe have made a career out of adding music to famous fairytales like “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Three Little Pigs” and “Mary Poppins,” and bringing them to the stage.

In Mercury Theatre’s “Soho Cinders,” a show that received its world premiere in London’s off-West End in 2012 and has rarely been seen elsewhere since, the Cinderella story has been significantly re-envisioned. Its infrequent stagings are no doubt due to the nature of its reincarnation as a decidedly naughty modern musical rather than the quality of the work itself, which is arguably some of Stiles and Drewe’s best.

Nearly everything takes place on Old Compton Street — the seedy center of London’s gay scene – which has been significantly sanitized courtesy of Nicholas Thornburg’s simple and handsomely crafted Soho flat exterior and pull-out scenery, Michael Jarett’s colorful projections, and director Pierre-Jacques Brault’s artistic vision.

This vision populates the neighborhood with a young, affable and good looking ensemble (Matthew Brightbill, Sophia Dennis, Sydney Mahon, Courtney Anne Nelson, Brandon Schumacher, Noah Vega, Brooke Vespoli, Jake Washabaugh, Bill Wetherbee) who wander through the city street in perfect synchrony to the rhythms of Washabaugh’s modern dance choreography.

It is there that we meet our wide-eyed and good-hearted hero, Robbie (Mason Henning) while being evicted from his flat by his foul-mouthed, strip-club owning stepsisters, Clodagh (Amiee Collier) and Dana (Kelvette Beacham). He is also being squeezed out of the laundromat he runs with best friend Velcro (Kennedy Ellis), which is frequented by an adorable sidekick named Sidesaddle (Lynette Turner).

Robbie is romantically involved with London’s charming and clandestinely gay mayoral candidate, James Prince (Brian Marshall), whose faux-fiancé (Melissa Siegel) discovers Robbie’s glass slipper – rather, his lost mobile phone – while attending a political fundraiser staged by Prince’s two-faced campaign manager (Joe Monaghan) and his put-upon assistant (Meredith Aleigha Wells).

The show is infused with Stiles and Drewe songs that range from gorgeous ballads like “Gypsies of the Ether,” performed with pitch-perfect harmonies by Henning and Marshall, the torch song “Let Him Go,” beautifully sung by Siegel and Ellis, and an assortment of high-energy production numbers like “Spin” that are brilliantly executed by the triple-threat ensemble. Everything is backed by a superb five-piece band under Eddie Carney’s direction.

Most remarkably, Mercury’s production finds a common ground for the often incompatible emotional realism of the story, its fable-based characters, and the romanticized songs they tend to sing.

As such, it provides an effective platform for the contrasting but equally exceptional acting turned in by the thoroughly endearing Ellis as the supportive but long-suffering Velcro and the deliciously over-the-top comedy delivered by the scenery-devouring Collier and Beacham as the sex-driven step-sisters.

But this approach to the work also sacrifices some of its intended edginess, which undermines a secondary and rather sordid storyline that revolves around Robbie’s relationship with an older man (Paul Hoffman).

This is no great loss, considering that the show’s happy-ever-after ending is the big payoff of this fractured and reconfigured fairytale, which nicely complements the production of “Disney’s My Son Pinocchio” that is running in repertory.

On stage

“Soho Cinders” by Mercury Theatre Company

WHERE: Notre Dame College’s Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., S. Euclid

WHEN: Through June 23

TICKETS & INFO: $16-$20, call 216-771-5862 or visit mercurytheatrecompany.org


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 10, 2018.

Lead image: Mason Henning as Robbie and Kennedy Ellis as Velcro. Photo / Daren Stahl Photography