The Rochester Broadway Theatre League opened its 2014-15 season Tuesday night with the first performance of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." The popular biblical musical, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice (their first major collaboration together), takes its inspiration from the Book of Genesis, telling the story of a dreamer named Joseph and his coat of many colors.
As innumerable "American Idol" cast members have moved on to careers in musical theater, their presence has become a staple of touring productions across the country -- it's an easy way for shows to gain an extra bit of "star" power to sell tickets. This particular production is headlined by "Idol" alums (and married couple) Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young. Young plays Joseph, one of 12 sons of their elderly father, Jacob. A lifelong dreamer and the favored son among his 11 brothers, Joseph is given a beautiful coat by his father as a sign of his love. This angers his jealous siblings, who wish to be rid of their brother and seek revenge by selling him into slavery. Joseph's gift for interpreting the dreams of others comes in handy on his climb back to freedom.
"Joseph" is hardly an essential work in the musical theater canon, but justifiably or not, I tend to think of the show as a likeable, family-friendly show that's good for introducing young children to the concept of musicals -- and if you think of the show in that way, it's a perfectly fine evening's entertainment. The show is a pastiche, sliding through musical genres from ho-down to calypso to Elvis-style rock numbers, and with the fast-paced story it's impossible to be bored. Lively and colorful, with a winky tone, the defining characteristic of most productions of "Joseph" can be narrowed down to "infectious enthusiasm." Its simplistic lyrics and earwormy melodies, which are constantly repeated throughout the show, make children the perfect target audience. The plot even takes the form of a narrator telling a story. I loved it when I was a kid, and judging by the young girl bopping along in the seat in front of me, it still holds its appeal.
This version differs slightly in that it opens with a bizarre prologue, beginning with Ace Young slumbering in bed and dreaming, then zipping through the ensemble pantomiming his path through high school, college, and then into the workforce, but for what purpose I'm not entirely sure -- I assume it has something to do with the need to keep dreaming throughout our lives. Regardless, it's silly and unnecessary. "Joseph" also continues the annoying recent tradition of modern restagings that feel the need to replace physical sets with digital projections. I don't have a problem with projections in theory, but in practice they tend to look sloppy. They're often designed to be overly busy, with so much movement that they end up distracting from the performers on stage. Add to that some questionable, cheap-looking props -- including some atrocious wooden rams slathered in glitter -- and the production design errs toward the tacky.
As for Young's lead performance, I'll say this for him: He sure looked happy to be on that stage. Say what you will about Donny Osmond, but there's a reason he's among the most popular stage Josephs: he's got an appealing presence and charm. Young on the other hand is a black hole of charisma on stage. He's an adequate singer, but he doesn't seem to have developed the pipes for the stage. DeGarmo fairs much better in the Narrator role. Since "Idol," she's made a decent career for herself on Broadway, and that experience shows. She belts her numbers like a pro while bringing some much-needed personality to the role. She also gets the tongue-in-cheek tone of the show just right
The pair are capably supported by a talented ensemble, singing and performing director Andy Blankenbuehler's spirited choreography. The French-tinged "Those Canaan Days" is the high point of the show, with a great, funny performance from Paul Castree as Joseph's brother, Simeon.
The musical concludes with the "Joseph Megamix," in which the entire cast returns to a stripped down stage, with spare, white costumes to repeat abbreviated renditions of the show's major songs over dance club beats. It's like the show as reenacted by a particularly theatrical crowd on a Saturday night at Tilt, and it works. With high energy and just a fancy light setup as backup, things seemed to click into place. It left me wondering what a bare-bones production of the show might look like. I'd just leave the sparkly rams out of it.