I have to admit that I generally approach the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber with a degree of apprehension that borders on fear and loathing. I can only think of one of his musicals with more than three-and-a-half good songs and that would be Cats. In fact, I would rate Cats as Webber’s supreme masterpiece. That should be enough to give you some nightmares.
Before I get deluged by hate mail from supposedly peace-loving musical-theater aficionados I’d like you to name two good songs from Evita — or any songs from Starlight Express. And while even I can admit to actually liking several songs (three-and-a-half to be exact) from Jesus Christ Superstar, the rest are either genuinely painful or as exciting as listening to a Henry James book on tape. So you might understand if, being only familiar with the four grating notes that go with the words “Go Go Go Go!” I was not expecting much aural delight from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, despite being a big fan of its source material.
And if I had seen some lavishly overproduced road show with Scott Baio as Pharaoh, I might just leave it at that, but there is something genuinely charming about Amphisphere Theatre’s production of Joseph at the Woodlawn Theatre. You might say it’s like going to a minor-league baseball game. It’s not about the bells and whistles, or star power, or ponying up the big bucks to see the giant chandelier; it’s about catching a glimpse of light from a plucky performer who could go on to play in the big leagues or seeing an urchin peek out from behind a flat and wave to his friends in the second row. (How unprofessional! How fun!) It’s about community and the joy of performance and it’s plain good fun. There’s something refreshing about seeing a play in a theater where you can get hot dogs and popcorn and cotton candy — things you don’t usually associate with Andrew Lloyd Webber. So, the Woodlawn isn’t Fenway Park. It’s not even as fancy as Nelson Wolff (the stadium), but it’s renovating nicely.
Joseph does have a few good songs, perhaps as many as four-and-a-half, though I’m beginning to wonder if there’s some sort of musical-theater rule that you have to have a calypso tune somewhere in the second act. “Benjamin Calypso” is the kind of song you might like but can never admit to liking without an accompanying feeling of shame.
There’s almost no dialogue in the play, which makes the whole thing move along rather briskly, but this also forces some really ridiculous expositional lyrics, and I’m not sure Tim Rice was in his right mind when he came up with a phrase about Joseph being “Pharaoh’s number two.” Other choice lyrics include perfunctory lists (I can’t believe anyone is still getting royalties for a list of colors on a coat set to music) and the roll call of Jacob’s 12 sons.
But every so often one of the songs will actually hit the right spot and, to their credit, the performers never let the audience down even when the play itself isn’t quite up to snuff — and I suppose after 40 years and 20,000 productions it’s a little late to correct the problems with the script.
Some edges of the performance are rougher than others (Joseph’s microphone malfunctioned at one point, leaving one of his numbers buried under the background) but Brandon Cruz’s genial smile and good voice still managed to shine through.
Gretel Campbell’s choreography is lively and well executed and she could also hold a tune quite ably as the Narrator. Special mention should go to Christopher Garcia, whose falsetto Potiphar was quite amusing, and especially to Alex Trevino (Pharaoh), whose Elvis impersonation was a show-stopper. But most impressive was the ensemble, surprisingly never out of tune and extremely well coordinated.
In the end, you don’t have to be an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan to enjoy seeing some young folks put out a real effort — in fact it’s a lot more entertaining than watching some tired professionals going through the motions for the 20,000th time to get through the three-and-a-half good songs.