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