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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Book and Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
June 7, 2017

Jeff Sears (Center), Kirsten Scott (Center Right) and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is an intriguing show, simply in terms of how versatile it is. It’s one of those shows that can be done on almost any scale or budget and still work. It’s not the deepest or most profound of shows. It’s really just a lot of fun, but what has become most interesting to me is the range of ways that a theatre company can produce this show. It can be big and flashy or more toned-down. Its look can change drastically depending on the production values and directors’ vision. It’s a show I’ve seen several times now, but I think this latest version from STAGES St. Louis is my favorite yet because of the cohesiveness of design, the sheer personality and energy of the cast, and the emphasis on a more human scale for this story rather than over-the-top flashiness, although it’s certainly a great looking production as well.

The story of this show is fairly straightforward–it’s a retelling of the Bible story of Joseph (Jeff Sears), son of Jacob (Steve Isom), and of Joseph’s journey from shepherd’s son to essentially prime minister of Egypt. It follows Joseph from his early days tending sheep with his eleven brothers, and boasting of his dreams that predict that he will someday rule over the rest of his family.  The story is presented by the Narrator (Kirsten Scott), who interacts with the characters at various times in the process of telling the story. As the story unfolds, a variety of different song styles is employed in whimsical fashion, from the country-western “One More Angel in Heaven” to the 1920’s styled “Potiphar” as Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, serves in the house of Potiphar (Brent Michael DiRoma) and is tempted and accused by Mrs. Potiphar (Molly Tynes), and then sent to jail. Joseph’s skill at interpreting dreams eventually brings him to the attention of Pharoah, who is–as in all productions of this show–presented as an Elvis-like figure (also played by DiRoma). It’s a fun show that blends the Bible story with various modern elements and and the variety of musical styles that also includes pop and rock influences.

While I’ve seen bigger and flashier productions of this show, I’m especially impressed by this production’s emphasis more on character and a stylish but not cartoonish look to the production. It’s a very human Joseph, with a strong cast led by the excellent Sears as a Joseph whose emotional journey is given more resonance here than in some other productions I’ve seen, bringing depth to songs like “Close Every Door” and “Any Dream Will Do”. Scott is also superb as the Narrator–a role I’ve generally considered to be the best part in the show–and her vocal range is impressive on numbers like the “Prologue”, “Poor, Poor Joseph”, and “Pharaoh Story”.  Scott brings a good deal of humor to the role of the Narrator as well, and her rapport with Sears as Joseph is a highlight. In fact, this is the first production I’ve seen in which there seems to be a hint of attraction between Joseph and the Narrator. There are also memorable performances from Isom as the proud and then sad patriarch, Jacob, by Tynes as the would-be seductress Mrs. Potiphar, and by all of the actors playing the brothers, and particularly Brad Frenette as Levi, Jeremiah Ginn as Reuben, Jason Eno as Judah, and Kyle Ivey as Benjamin. DiRoma is also a stand-out in two roles, as the rich but lonely Potiphar and especially as Pharaoh, where he exudes a lot of charm and comes across as more of the “young Elvis” as opposed to the older “Las Vegas Elvis”, even though he does get to wear the glittery, sequined jumpsuit. There’s also a strong ensemble to back up the leading performers, displaying a lot of vocal and physical energy on various production numbers that have been dynamically choreographed by director/choreographer Stephen Bourneuf.

Visually, the show is colorful and whimsical without being overly flashy or cartoonish. It’s a great look for this show, in keeping with the overall tone of this production. James Wolk’s versatile set frames the action well, and Brad Musgrove’s costumes are vivid, detailed, and fun. The excellent lighting effects by Sean M. Savoie also adjusts well to the various scene and tone changes throughout the production.

This is a fun show, and the cast and creative team obviously enjoy presenting it. From the starry opening to the bright, energetic “Megamix” conclusion, this is a Joseph with heart and humanity. It’s an excellent, highly entertaining production, and a great start to STAGES’ 2017 season.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat presented by STAGES St. Louis at Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood, Missouri on June 1, 2017.

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 2, 2017

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The Lion King
Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice
Additional Music and Lyrics by Lebo M, Mark Mancina, Jay Rifkin, Julie Taymor, Hans Zimmer
Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Julie Taymor
Choreographed by Garth Fagan
The Fox Theatre
April 20, 2017

Mukelisiwe Goba
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Lion King North American Tour

The Lion King has become a massive hit on stage since first opening on Broadway in 1998. An adaptation of the popular Disney film, the stage version caused something of a sensation with its innovating staging and use of puppetry. Believe it or not, I had never actually seen the stage show before. I had only seen the film, and that was a long time ago. Now on stage at the Fox, the latest national tour of this grand, stunningly staged musical is an impressive spectacle for all ages, whether you are familiar with the story or not.

The story, at least partially inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is one of parent-child bonds, difficult family ties, personal responsibility and more, with a cast of characters who are wild animals living in the African savanna. It centers around Simba, played as a child in the performance I saw by Jordan Williams and as an adult by Dashaun Young. Simba is the son and heir of the current king of the lions and various other animals, the wise and brave Mufasa (Gerald Ramsey). Mufasa’s scheming brother Scar (Mark Campbell) wants to be king instead, and orchestrates events so that  he can take over the kingdom.  The story then leads to young Simba’s growing up under the tutelage of fellow “outcast” animals, meerkat Timon (Nick Cordileone) and warthog Pumbaa (Ben Lipitz), and eventually being reunited with childhood friend Nala the lioness (Nia Holloway as an adult, Meilani Cisneros as a child), and encouraged to return to Pride Rock and reclaim his rightful place as king. Presiding over all the action is Rafiki (Mukelisiwe Goba), a wise, mystical mandrill who also encourages Simba on his quest to challenge Scar and his hyena cronies for leadership.

The staging is famously innovative with its use of puppetry and stylized costumes in the portrayal of its animal characters, and also for its stunning production numbers such as the spectacular “Circle of Life” opening number, which drew enthusiastic applause from the audience. The production values here are excellent, especially for a production that’s been touring for so long. Richard Hudson’s set design, Julie Taymor’s costumes, Donald Holder’s lighting design, and Taymor and Michael Curry’s mask and puppet design are all dazzlingly memorable. The choreography by Garth Fagan is energetic and well-executed by the strong ensemble here.

The lead performances are also strong, led by Goba (the understudy) as the wise, sometimes mischievous Rafiki, who in the stage production is essentially the star of the show, as far as I’m concerned. Goba brings a great deal of energy and personality to the role, spurring on Young’s earnest adult Simba. Young and the equally strong Holloway have good chemistry as Simba and Nala, and young Williams and Cisneros give fine performances as their younger counterparts as well. There are some fun comic performances from Codileone and Lipitz as Timon and Pumbaa, and also by Tony Freeman as Mufasa’s bird advisor Zazu. Ramsey carries a strong sense of authority and general goodness as Mufasa as well. Campbell is also memorable as the scheming Scar, with a leering tone and strong voice, and he’s ably supported by Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Keith Bennett, and Robbie Swift as the opportunistic hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed.  The dance ensemble is especially strong, as well, bringing a sense of fluidity and grace to the stage in the various dance numbers.

This is a good adaptation of the film, but with a few changes that actually make it work better on stage. It’s still The Lion King, though, and its memorable story and characters are on clear display here at the Fox. It’s an excellent show for audiences of all ages, and the audience I saw it with was definitely appreciative. It’s a story with humor, drama, and a strong message of redemption, responsibility, and hope. It’s well worth checking out.

Nia Holloway (Right) and Ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Lion King North America Tour

The North American Tour of Disney’s The Lion King runs at the Fox Theatre until May 7, 2017.

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Aida
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton and Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Directed by Matt Lenz
Choreographed by Jon Rua
August 8, 2016

Cast of Aida Photo: The Muny

Cast of Aida
Photo: The Muny

It’s a musical based on the story from a well-known opera, with music by one of pop music’s most recognizable names. It’s set in ancient Egypt, but with a host of modern musical styles from pop to rock to gospel and more. The show is Aida, and it’s the last–and best–production of the Muny’s 98th season in Forest Park.

Aida is named after its central character, a Nubian princess (Michelle Williams) who has been captured along with others from her country as a result of a recent battle with Egypt. The Nubian captives are taken as slaves by the Egyptians, and Aida keeps her identity as a princess secret. The Egyptian captain, Radames (Zak Resnick), decides to present Aida as a “gift” to be a handmaiden for his betrothed, Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris (Taylor Louderman), although he and Aida are obviously attracted to one another. As their attraction grows, political intrigue also grows, as Radames’s unscrupulous father Zoser (Patrick Cassidy) schemes to get his son into power, against Radames’s own wishes. As the story continues, Aida and Radames are increasingly drawn to one another as Aida also develops something of a friendship with Amneris and also confides her secret to her countryman, Mereb (Wonza Johnson), another captured palace servant who wants to reveal her secret to his people. The warlike nature of society, the injustice of slavery and imperialism, roles and expectations of women, social pressures of marriage for political gain vs. love, and other issues are key elements in this story. It’s a love story ultimately, but not only about romantic love. It’s also about love for family, friends, country, and the desire for freedom to live and love as one chooses. The excellent songs by Elton John and Tim Rice portrays these themes with style and a variety of musical styles, ranging from pop to rock to gospel.

The cast here features several performers who have been involved in productions of Aida on Broadway, on tour, and in the last Muny production in 2006, including the excellent Michelle Williams, who previously played the title role on Broadway. She’s in excellent voice here and displays great stage presence and chemistry with Resnick’s conflicted Radames. Their duets are a highlight of the production. Taylor Louderman is also impressive as the initially superficial-seeming Amneris, whose ode to fashion “My Strongest Suit” is a musical and comedic tour de force. Louderman also does a great job portraying her character’s conflict and growth as a character. Also excellent is Johnson as Mereb, with a strong voice and a strong sense of conviction and loyalty to Aida and his people. There’s also a great performance by the Muny’s veteran Ken Page, reprising his 2006 role as Aida’s father, Nubian king Amonasro. Patrick Cassidy, who has previously played Radames on Broadway and on tour, does a fine job here in the somewhat cartoonish role of Zoser, although the vocals seem to be challenging for his range at times. The show also boasts a top notch ensemble, shining vocally and physically in stunning production numbers such as the Act 1 finale, “The Gods Love Nubia”. It’s a wonderful cast all around, telling the story with energy, emotion, and superb skill.

Technically, this production is also a stunner. The expansive, versatile set by Tim Mackabee evokes the Egyptian setting well, with pyramids, desert backdrops, and regal palace settings. Robin L. McGee’s costumes are superbly detailed, as well, suiting the characters well and evoking the time and place. There’s also fantastic lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer and video design by Matthew Young, transporting the audience to a somewhat stylized version of ancient Egypt.

Overall, this has been a good year for the Muny.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to see all of the shows this year, missing Fiddler On the Roof because I was out of town that week. Still, the Muny is in excellent hands with Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson, and this production of Aida closes out the season in spectacular fashion. It’s a poignant, musically impressive, visually stunning, superbly acted production. I hadn’t seen this musical, or the opera on which it is based, before, and I’m glad this first-rate production was my introduction to this story.

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick Photo: The Muny

Taylor Louderman, Michelle Williams, Zak Resnick
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is presenting Aida in Forest Park until August 14, 2016.

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Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Matt Lenz
Chorographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
July 29, 2015

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of Disney’s modern animated films. It’s a contemporary classic that’s been adapted for the stage and enjoyed a successful, long-running Broadway production. It’s a big, colorful show that’s well-suited for a large venue like the Muny. With a cast of well-known Muny veterans as well as some welcome new faces, this production is thoroughly entertaining and true to the magical, enchanting spirit of the film.

The plot, based on the age-old fairy tale, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film. Belle (Kate Rockwell) is a well-read young dreamer who is praised for her physical beauty, but criticized for her unconventional ways in her small French village. She’s pursued by the vain but good-looking Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann), who seems to only want to marry Belle so he can add another trophy to his collection. When Belle’s father, the eccentric inventor Maurice (Lenny Wolpe) gets lost in the woods and wanders into an enchanted castle, he’s imprisoned by the Beast (Nicholas Rodriguez), who is under an enchantress’s curse. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to save her father, the story really gets going, as their relationship is the key to breaking the spell that binds the Beast and his household servants, who have all been transformed into objects–like the candlestick Lumiere (Rob McClure), the clock Cogsworth (Steve Rosen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Marva Hicks) and her son Chip (Spencer Jones) the teacup. There’s also feather duster Babette (Deidre Goodwin) and wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche (Heather Jane Rolff).  A few changes have been made from the film version, mostly to make the story work better on stage, and a few new songs have been added, including the excellent ballads “Home” for Belle and “If I Can’t Love Her” for the Beast. The film’s classic songs including “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and the classic title song are all there, as well.

This is a big, vibrant production designed to fit the Muny’s massive performance space. Although the costumes, designed by Robin L. McGee, seem a bit overly cartoonish at times, the set is spectacular. Designed by Robert Mark Morgan, it’s a big, versatile set focused for much of the production on the castle, with a suggestion of the grand stone facade including arches, a staircase and prominent fireplace. The Muny’s turntable is put to excellent use as well, making for smooth scene changes and maintaining the show’s grand atmosphere. There’s also excellent video design by Matthew Young, and some well-placed special effects including real fireworks in a key scene. Again, as has been happening in every show so far this season, there are a few sound mishaps, with mics cutting out and lines being missed as a result. Still, the show is a scenic wonder, contributing to the overall fairy tale theme with style.

The performances are strong all-around, with the biggest standout being Rockwell as a thoroughly convincing Belle. She’s got just the right amount of earnestness, determination and likability, as well as a big, powerhouse voice that’s well showcased on songs like “Home” and “A Change In Me.” She’s paired well with Rodriguez as a particularly sensitive Beast, and their scenes of getting to know one another are real highlights. The “Beauty and the Beast” number is beautifully done, with Rockwell and Rodriguez bringing the romantic energy and Hicks in fine voice as Mrs. Potts.  There’s great comic support from the always excellent McClure as the charming Lumiere, and Rosen as the fastidious Cogsworth. Hackmann is a suitably swaggering and clear-voiced Gaston, and Michael Hartung is funny as his bumbling sidekick Lafou. There’s also an excellent, extra-large ensemble bringing verve and vigor to the production numbers like “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Belle”.

There are a few somewhat jarring changes from the film that I’m not sure play particularly well, especially toward the end when Gaston confronts the Beast, although the overall conclusion is still effective. The overall charm of this show comes across well in that big, bold Muny style. It’s an entertaining iteration of a classic, and it’s sure to bring joy and enchantment to theatregoers of all ages.

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen Photo: The Muny

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 7th, 2015.

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The Wizard of Oz
Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Additional Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directedy by Jeremy Sams
The Fox Theatre
May 13, 2014

Danielle Wade, Jamie McKnight, Lee MacDougall, Mike Jackson Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann Wizard of Oz Tour

Danielle Wade, Jamie McKnight, Lee MacDougall, Mike Jackson
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Wizard of Oz

The real “wizard” behind the curtain of this latest production of  The Wizard of Oz is Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Having produced this show first in London and then in Toronto, casting the lead via a reality talent competition both times, Lloyd Webber has put his own stamp on the time-honored classic, re-teaming with lyricist Tim Rice to write additional songs for the show and assembling an excellent design team to create a unique look for the production.  The current US Tour of the production, starring most of the Toronto cast, has now arrived at the Fox Theatre, and while the overall production isn’t quite as grand as it was in London, it still provides for a tuneful, colorful and entertaining evening of theatre suitable for all ages.

 The story here is familiar to basically everyone, having been taken mostly from the classic MGM film. Dorothy Gale (Danielle Wade) and her dog Toto (an adorable Cairn terrier named Nigel) are whisked away by a cyclone to the magical land of Oz, where Dorothy, advised by Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Robin Evan Willis), heads off on a journey to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard (Jay Brazeau) in the hope that he will be able to help her get back to her home in Kansas.  Along the way, she meets the Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), the Tin Man (Mike Jackson) and the Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall), all the while being antagonized by the vengeful Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan), who is determined to capture Dorothy in order to obtain the precious Ruby Slippers, with which Dorothy has been entrusted.  It’s a classic tale of friendship, bravery and the importance of home, and all those familiar elements are here, with a few mostly stylistic elements from L. Frank Baum’s original book (such as the Munchkins all dressed in blue) thrown in for good measure.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to see the original London production of this show three years ago, and I found it spectacularly staged and extremely well-cast.  This production has obviously been scaled down for touring, and for the most part, it still looks good, with colorful sets and costumes by Robert Jones, and strong choreography by Arlene Phillips. It’s probably not fair to compare too much, and most of the people seeing this show will not have seen it in London, but I can’t help but wish this version still had some of the scale of the original.  Where the scaling down shows the most is in the lack of flying effects (the Witches mostly just walk everywhere, and the Monkeys don’t really fly), and in the Munchkinland scene, where the staging comes across as cluttered and cramped.  Also, several of the backdrops have a one dimensional quality, and when Dorothy and friends on the Yellow Brick Road finally see the Emerald City in the distance, it looks a lot like a flat Christmas tree.  Still, even with those issues, the show manages to entertain. The Kansas scenes look great here, and I’m also especially impressed by some of the dancing that I don’t remember from the London show, such as an impressive rhythmic baton-clicking dance by the Winkies (the Wicked Witch’s minions) near the end of the show.

In terms of the cast, this production does well.  Wade makes an engaging, likable, slightly tomboyish Dorothy, and her voice is strong on the iconic “Over the Rainbow”. Despite seeming oddly out of breath through much of the first act, Wade displays a strong bond with her three companions and, especially, with Toto. McKnight makes a fine, goofy and forgetful Scarecrow, and Jackson is in great form as a swaggering Tin Man.  MacDougall, as the Lion, is funny delivering his many one-liners, although he seems a little too over-the-top at times. The Witches–Willis as a particularly snarky version of Glinda and Donovan as the menacing Wicked Witch–play well in their antagonistic relationship on stage, and Donovan delivers the new “Red Shoes Blues” with gusto.  As Professor Marvel (in Kansas) and the Wizard, Brazeau is charming and sympathetic, if not a particularly powerful singer.  The ensemble here is strong as well, especially in the dancing.

For the most part, I would say that this incarnation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz is a crowd-pleasing success. While not quite as spectacular as the earlier London production, this version still has many strengths and is an excellent show for families. It’s not exactly like the film, and visually it looks very different, but the story is essentially the same.  The poignant and familiar finale (with a slight twist) is especially well-done here, leaving the audience with a sense of wonder and hope.

Danielle Wade, Mike Jackson,Jamie McKnight Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann The Wizard of Oz

Danielle Wade, Mike Jackson,Jamie McKnight
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
The Wizard of Oz

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Fox Theatre
April 29, 2014

Ace Young, Diana DeGarmo Photo by Daniel A. Swalec Joseph... National Tour

Ace Young, Diana DeGarmo
Photo by Daniel A. Swalec
Joseph… National Tour


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been produced many times over the years, and in many countries around the world. It may seem like the show has been done so often that it would be a challenge to come up with a version that’s both entertaining and vibrant without seeming at least somewhat stale. Now, the latest national tour has taken up that challenge and, for the most part, succeeded. Starring a pair of former American Idol contestants, this production manages to overcome a few technical missteps and present an incarnation of the show that’s engaging and can be a lot of fun.

The concept of this play is simple–it’s the Biblical story of Joseph (Ace Young) told in a pastiche format with a blend of different musical styles and concepts, with a Narrator (Diana DeGarmo) telling the story and sometimes interacting with the characters along the way. As Joseph undergoes his journey from entitled favored son to forced slavery in Egypt and finally to a place of prominence in the Egyptian government and reconciliation with his family, his adventures are portrayed mostly with humor, dance. spectacle, and a little bit of drama. The cast of characters is familiar, with the figures from the Bible fleshed out as more stylistic archetypes, most notably with Pharaoh (Ryan Williams), who is cast as an attention-loving Elvis impersonator.

This show has been told many different ways over the years, although it seems the prevailing style for the past two decades has been based on the 1991 London Palladium revival, with its flashy sets, children’s chorus, expanded role for Joseph and the added “Megamix” song-and-dance medley at the end.  The previous live versions I’ve seen have followed that mold, for the most part. Refreshingly, this latest tour gets away from that format, with a structure and song order more in keeping with the 1982 Original Broadway production. This version has an all-adult ensemble, Potiphar (William Thomas Evans) sings lead on his song, and Joseph’s notable song “Any Dream Will Do” doesn’t appear until late in the show, as it had been before the 1991 revival set the new standard. Although the Megamix is still added on to the end, it’s interesting to see the show performed with the older structure, which puts more emphasis on the narrator and the ensemble than on Joseph himself.

The ensemble here is a good one, led by husband-and-wife American Idol alums Young and DeGarmo.  The role of Joseph is somewhat slight and really just requires a reasonably good singer with a degree of physical fitness, and Young more than fits that bill. His voice is pleasant but not as powerful as other Josephs I’ve seen, and he plays the role with a somewhat distracting slouch, although he brings a wide-eyed, almost geeky quality to Joseph that is ultimately appealing. DeGarmo as the Narrator displays a lot of energy, stage presence and strong vocal ability, especially in her lower range and on big belty numbers like “Paraoh’s Story”. She tends to sound squeaky on some of the higher notes, but that may not be entirely her fault, as the sound quality isn’t great and lends something of a muddled quality to a lot of the vocals.  DeGarmo interacts well with the ensemble and she has great onstage chemistry with Young, especially in their duet of “Any Dream Will Do” late in the show.  There’s also an excellent ensemble here, with Williams hamming it up winningly on “Poor, Poor Pharaoh/Song of the King”.  Several of the brothers shine in various moments of the show as well, such as Brian Golub (Reuben) in “One More Angel In Heaven”, Paul Castree (Simeon) in “Those Canaan Days” and Will Mann (Judah) in “Benjamin Calypso”.  “Those Canaan Days” in particular is a treat, with excellent performances all around and some fun choreography involving juggling plates.

Stylistically, the set (designed by Beowulf Borritt) is simple and clever, with a few movable set pieces, a prominent staircase and curtains framing the scenes and serving as a canvas for the excellent projections (designed by Daniel Brodie).  The projections range from the abstract (various colorful shapes and patterns) to the concrete (such as a map of Egypt), and are cleverly used to set the mood and transition between scenes. There’s even one notable moment in which ocean scenes are projected on the backs of ensemble members, clad in flowing white robes. Director Andy Blankenbuehler’s staging and choreography is snappy and energetic, as well, with some fun stylistic callbacks to other musicals such as West Side Story (“Poor, Poor Joseph”) and Oklahoma! (“One More Angel in Heaven”), and fun elements such as the aforementioned dish-juggling sequence. The quality of the sound (designed by John Shivers and David Patridge), is cluttered and muddy, however, and the lighting (designed by Howell Binkley) is often too dark, and these flaws can be distracting but for the most part, don’t detract too much from the overall enjoyable nature of the show.

This isn’t the first production of Joseph… I’ve seen and, as popular as it is, I’m sure it won’t be the last. Still, this latest tour has managed to make an impression and provide for an enjoyable evening of lighthearted entertainment.  With two appealing leads and a strong ensemble, this production stands out as an enjoyable evening and a memorable retelling of this oft-told story.

Ryan Williams, Ace Young Photo by Daniel A. Swalec Joseph... National Tour

Ryan Williams, Ace Young
Photo by Daniel A. Swalec
Joseph… National Tour

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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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