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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Directed and Choreographed by Lara Teeter

The Muny, St. Louis

July 23, 2012

I almost skipped this production of Joseph.  The Muny just did a production of this show five years ago and I was planning on sitting this week out because I thought I wouldn’t need to see it again so soon. I was wrong.  I’m glad I caught a report on the local news talking about the “twist” of this production, because it made me curious to see it, and I’m very happy that I did.  With this production, the latest in the Muny’s so-far extremely impressive 94th season, veteran Muny performer Lara Teeter takes the reins as director and choreographer and, along with a strong cast and crew, presents a show that is wildly entertaining, extremely clever and uniquely St. Louis.

As usual, this is the Biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob, with a twist—a pastiche of different musical styles melded together to tell the story.  What is not usual, though, is that this production is set in a strange amalgam of the ancient Middle East and Egypt, and modern-day St. Louis.  The show starts with a collection of people wandering aimlessly on stage as, one by one, a few recount how they have “lost their dream”.  Then the Narrator (Mamie Parris) appears to tell the story of Joseph (Justin Guarini), who enters wearing a Cardinals jersey, singing one of the show’s most well-known songs “Any Dream Will Do”.  From there, we are taken back to Bible times, sort of.  Everything has a St. Louis flavor and oddly enough, it works.  Jacob (Gary Glasgow) and his sons run a Schnucks-like supermarket (“Jacob and Sons”), go tailgating at Busch Stadium (“One More Angel In Heaven”) and later, when their fortune changes, are relegated to hawking frozen custard concretes at Ted Drewe’s (“Those Canaan Days”).  Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, and goes to work for Potiphar (also Glasgow), who is an obvious Donald Trump-like character whose business empire is based in Downtown St. Louis.  Later Joseph meets the Pharaoh (Austin Miller), who is an Elvis-like figure as is usual in this show, but this time he is backed by an ensemble consisting of golden cat-people and 1950’s-styled teenage groupies.  The settings are hilariously random and specific at the same time, and St. Louisans in the audience are bound to recognize a lot of the references.  It’s also amazing that most of the change of setting is achieved by the sets, costumes and performances as opposed to changes in the script.  As far as I can tell, aside from the little addition to the prologue, the most drastic change to the show as written is an adaptation in the arrangement of one song– the usually titled “Benjamin Calypso” toward the end of the show has been turned into a gospel song, incorporating the full cast in a rousing,  energetic production number.  I’ve never heard of this being done before but in the context of this production, it works.  There are also some fun pop-culture references thrown into the “Megamix” at the end.

What is great about this production is that, while this very different approach could easily seem distracting or pretentious, it all goes together surprisingly well.  This is just the right kind of show to adapt in this manner, in that it’s not a deeply serious show to begin with, and it seems to work best when everyone involved just has fun with it.  All the elements of the show work together seamlessly. The set design is simple but effective—it’s basically just a bridge, with a few movable booths and platforms and familiar St. Louis scenes posted on the scenery wall in the background.  The costumes are also simple with a lot of bright colors and some St. Louis specific outfits like the Ted Drewe’s uniforms and Cardinals jersey.  The choreography is well-executed and energetic, reflecting the various styles of the songs. One of the best examples of the St. Louis specific staging is in the Ted Drewe’s sequence in “Those Canaan Days”, in which the booths are arranged into a reasonable suggestion of the custard stand, and the choreography even incorporates the signature “turning the concrete upside down” gesture in a way that is hilariously appropriate and adds to the humor of the song without seeming the least bit forced.

Aside from the setting, the best thing about this production is its cast.  Parris as the Narrator has a strong voice (occasionally reminiscent of original Broadway Narrator Laurie Beechman) and good stage presence, and Guarini, who was a pleasant surprise as Billy Flynn in the Muny’s Chicago a few weeks ago, is excellent again as Joseph.  He projects just the right air of charm and cockiness at the beginning of the show, and convincingly matures into the wise leader by the end, and his voice is very strong in songs like “Any Dream Will Do” and the moving “Close Every Door.”  Miller is obviously having a lot of fun as Pharaoh, and he shows a great rapport with both the cast and the audience.  His part is relatively small, but he makes the most of it, and the scene in which he describes his dreams to Joseph (“Poor Poor Pharaoh/ Song of the King”) is a real highlight.  Maurice Murphy as Joseph’s brother Judah leads the “Benjamin Gospel” number with a strong, clear voice and infectious enthusiasm as well, and Glasgow plays his dual roles of Jacob and Potiphar convincingly.  All of the the brothers work very well together and their group numbers are a treat as well.

The bottom line here is that this production is, simply put, a whole lot of fun.  It’s goofy, it’s clever, and it’s so well put together that the company makes it appear as if this is the way the show was always supposed to be done.  It’s not a deep or overly serious show, and there is not one bit of pretension.  The way this production incorporates its setting is ingenious and a remarkable success. It’s a production with lots of humor, and to borrow a lyric from another show (Damn Yankees), “miles and miles and miles of heart”. It’s a great way to celebrate the time-honored St. Louis tradition of attending a show at the Muny. I was very pleasantly surprised by this production, and after this season is done, this is one that will definitely stand out in my memory as an ideal example of how some things that might not work anywhere else can work incredibly well at the Muny.  It’s a unique venue, and this was a fittingly unique and surprisingly successful production.

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