Surflight’s ‘Joseph’ Pulls Out All the Stops

But Does It Rob Show of Its Original Delicious Simplicity?
Jul 19, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

There are plenty of fine moments in Surflight Theatre’s current production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

“Go, Go, Go, Joseph,” the lively production number that ends Act 1, created a buzz during intermission.

The “Joseph Megamix,” the energetic montage of the musical’s “greatest hits” that closes “Joseph,” had the audience champing at the bit to launch a standing ovation.

“Song of the King” sung by Pharaoh (Andrew Foote), who is supposed to look and sound like Elvis Presley, almost always provides the show’s top comedic moment and so it is in this production, as Foote worked hard for laughs even if he looked more like Fonzie than Elvis.

“Those Canaan Days,” the French cabaret pastiche in which Joseph’s brothers, led by Simeon (Seth Weinstein), bemoan their privation in exile while fondly remembering the good old days at home, garnered chuckles all the way to its fly-eating finale, which somehow caught a few spectators by surprise despite the fact that the joke has been a feature of the show for decades.

Yep, there were plenty of fine moments in Surflight’s “Joseph.” The problem is there were just too many moments.

Directors have been tinkering with “Joseph” for decades, seemingly intent on turning what was once a cute little musical into a Broadway spectacular. Surflight’s director/choreographer, Karen Babcock Brassea, couldn’t resist the urge to pile on.

“My first acquaintance with ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ was in the 1980s when it was produced off-Broadway with each of the brothers in adorable overalls, each with their first initial on the bib,” she wrote in Surflight’s program. “I found it to be sweet, funny and a great family show! This revival version of the show is even more child friendly because there is a kid’s chorus. My objective is to tell the story through the eyes of a theatrical Narrator, who is telling the story to the children – with a layer of fun for the adults …

“FYI, for those of you who have seen the movie version of this show with Donny Osmond, we are basing our show loosely on that version of the piece, with my ideas interjected, of course. However, for you purists, there are some iconic ‘bits’ that you will recognize from the movie and even a couple of design elements we pulled in from the original off-Broadway production.”

When you borrow your inspiration from multiple sources there is bound to be some discontinuity. The most obvious clash in Babcock Brassea’s vision of “Joseph” was found in her costuming choices. Sure enough, the brothers were originally clad in overalls with initials, reminding this reviewer of Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame who always sported a large A on his chest. But then she borrowed from the movie version and the chorus in “Go, Go, Go Joseph” was dressed in a strange combination of 1960s Twiggy fashion and 1970s disco. For the show’s finale she borrowed again, this time from the show’s 1993 Broadway revival, dressing the entire cast in white.

The larger problem, though, was how the children’s choir was handled.

The kids weren’t to be blamed. Too many productions of “Joseph” have had choirs with 30 or 40 children who added very little to the music, sometimes succumbed to nose-picking distraction, and basically got in the way of their shows, slowing things down as they were herded around the stage like sheep going to slaughter. The 18 members of the Starlight Singers Youth Ensemble in Surflight’s production were focused, provided a wonderful vocal ceiling to many of the numbers in which they were included, and moved quickly to their spots. If my lip reading is correct, they, down to the youngest members of the choir, had even mastered the lyrics to “Joseph’s Coat,” which is a bear for even experienced performers to memorize – “It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ochre and peach …” and on and on for 57 colors, with no rhyme or alphabetical or spectrum order to fall back on. Bravo, kids!

No, the shame was that Babcock Brassea seemed to have forgotten her declared objective, “to tell the story through the eyes of a theatrical Narrator, who is telling the story to the children.” Her Narrator, Adrianne Hick, started off the evening singing relatively softly and clearly to the children, holding a picture book in her hand. But as the show progressed it seemed more and more as if she was trying to match the vocal chops of the original New York City Narrator, the late and great Laurie Beechman. Beechman didn’t sing to a children’s choir, she belted directly to her audiences. If you were to tell a story to a gaggle of children in a voice as loud as Hick’s you might just scare the hell out of them. Surfight’s Joseph, David Ossman, had the better, gentler, tone.

The other shame of the evening was there didn’t seem to be a single child in the audience. Even Surflight’s “Joseph,” bloated as it was, would appeal to them. At its core “Joseph,” with its fun music and witty lyrics, remains, as its director wrote, “a great family show.”

Alas, Babcock Brassea is far from the only director these days who can’t resist trying to make this show, Webber and Rice’s first performed musical, greater than it is by adding new conceits and, in larger theaters, special effects. Thanks to the 50th anniversary release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” I can easily imagine a “Joseph” 20 years down the line – “Messrs. K. and H. assure the public their production will be second to none and of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz!”

Call me a “purist,” but simpler can be better.

Surflight’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will run through July 23. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office in Beach Haven.

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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