JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 18th May, 2016
Way, way back, many centuries ago, I appeared in my school’s production of this show, as the Narrator, and so, of all musicals, this is probably the one I know the best. In fact, it started life as a 20-minute piece for an assembly and has been added to and added to over the years. Initially the additions were to flesh out the story. Nowadays it seems the further additions are to extend the running time – perhaps to make people feel they’re getting their money’s worth. There is an old saying, however, that less is more.
And so we get previews of songs before they crop up in the story, and endless reprises. At the core though, the show remains a daft, funny and ultimately moving piece of theatre that can still work its magic despite all the padding. The plot is, of course, a Bible story, an Old Testament tale from which God is absent. It tells of Jacob, a fertile old man. Eleven of his sons envy the twelfth. The camel’s back is broken by the last straw: Jacob gives his favourite the eponymous garment. The brothers decide to do away with this rival for their father’s affections and end up selling him into slavery. Joseph rises through the ranks of Egyptian society, via a detour into prison, because of his ability to interpret the puzzling dreams of the rich and famous. The fashion victim is able to turn the tables on his detractors.
Joe McElderry dazzles as Joseph. He has never sounded better and when it comes to the acid test for all Josephs, Close Every Door, he nails it. The song, not the door. I get chills; they multiply. He looks great too – he can certainly fill a loincloth – apart from one scene when he is dressed like a gold Power Ranger doing Phantom of the Opera. McElderry is matched, if not surpassed, by a terrific Narrator – soprano Lucy Kay, whose voice ranges from the operatic to power rock. I can’t remember a better Narrator – me included!
Choreographer Henry Metcalfe appears as Jacob and the rich merchant Potiphar. His choreography matches the genre of each song, adding to the fun and spectacle. The chorus of brothers largely act as one – this production doesn’t give them each a wife to dance with, and so there is a distinctly masculine feel and sound to their numbers. It’s difficult to single them out for praise but Benjamin Beechey makes his mark as eldest son Reuben, especially during Country and Western lament, One More Angel In Heaven; Jamie Jukes stands out as Zebulun; and Marcus Ayton’s Issacher delivers a rousing calypso; Lewis Asquith’s Butler is a curious mixture of Egyptian posturing and upper class twit. The show requires everyone to be versatile and this lot pull it off with aplomb. Those Canaan Days, an inexplicably French number, is hilariously melodramatic.
The other big role, that of the Pharaoh, is always a highlight. Emilianos Stamatakis delivers The King, a Las Vegas Elvis in the white jumpsuit of his prime. It’s an electrifying performance that is diluted by one-too-many encores and a relatively new song, an interpolation that seems nothing more than an excuse to namedrop as many Presley song titles as possible. It makes me wonder what the youngest members of the audience get from this, with Elvis less than a current event. There is much to enjoy in Stamatakis’s rendition at face value, I suppose, but it strikes me the primary school attendees will be more familiar with the Ancient Egyptian iconography in the set design than the works and mannerisms of the King.
A choir of local school children appears – they get their moment in the spotlight for a medley that kicks off the second act. A great opportunity for them to appear alongside professionals in a high quality production. The show is colourful, irresistibly and energetic, and is enhanced by plenty of silly business – a singing camel’s head, a bottomless boat, inflatable sheep that don’t always rise to the occasion. Director Bill Kenwright somehow keeps the whole enterprise fresh, despite its familiarity and its playing-for-time padding.
To my mind, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best piece. Nowhere else has he used pastiche so effectively and honestly. The pop tunes, across a range of styles, are matched perfectly by Tim Rice’s witty, very English, lyrics. All the fun culminates in a simple but moving moment of reconciliation and reunion that gets me every time. The emotional impact sneaks up on you – you’re surprised by how affected you are, and that is why this show works time and time again.
Joe McElderry displaying his X factor (Photo: Mark Yeoman)