When it comes to musicals that ought to be re-imagined, there are few better choices than Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. This warhorse created by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) has been a constant presence in the theater community for 50 years. Thanks to countless productions at various schools and community theaters, the story of Joseph from the Bible is as familiar to most of us now as one of Grimm’s fairy tales.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. While familiarity with a show such as Joseph may not breed contempt, it does encourage a certain level of skepticism, since the focus is on the particular production in front of us.
In this case, the talented director Pierre-Jacques Brault has attempted a reworking of Joe and his Book of Genesis pals, setting them in 1930’s Hollywood and telling the story of a guy who’s out to bring color and flash to the black and white cinema world. This involves bringing in a variety of performers from that era including W.C. Fields, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and etc.
Of course, once you take that step you have to deliver on those goods, and this is where Mercury’s Joseph falls short. In theory, it would be fun to have those old-time movie stalwarts chiming in to tell this yarn which is originally about a young man who is rejected by his brothers and enslaved in another country before his triumphant return.
But that would require some spot-on impersonations to make sure we know who we’re looking at. Unfortunately, you’d have to put the character names on the back of their costumes to identify most of them. Indeed, the Marx Brothers almost sneak past unnoticed, which is damn near impossible, since the performers playing them, and all the others, never succeed in achieving anything close ro impersonation.
Since the program doesn't connect any of the actors to the roles they play—except for Brandon Schumacker who plays Joseph, and quite well at that—it’s impossible to give those folks the, um, credit they deserve. But it may not be their fault, since Mercury is producing this show in rep with Caroline, or Change, which opens in just a few days. Those are two huge shows and some acting niceties might be suffering due to the time demands on Brault and others.
In another change the starring role of the Narrator, often sung by a woman, has been dispersed among a dozen actors. This deprives the play of its central, unifying storytelling structure and will confuse those, especially younger audience members, who haven’t seen the show repeatedly over the years.
That said, the music of Joseph is as entertaining as ever, featuring songs that swing from a comically morose French ballad to country-western and many other genres. And the cast delivers the songs with reasonable flair and polish, thanks to Eddie Carney’s musical direction. Plus, Brault’s choreography adds flashes of fun.
But when you’re going high-concept with a production, it’s best to make sure you have the time and the acting resources to nail the reinterpretation. From that perspective this Joseph, in 1930s parlance, is a broken-down flivver.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Through August 12 produced by the Mercury Theatre Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatrecompany.org.