Tuesday, 18 November 2008

REVIEW: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

(If you're here because you saw the URL in the Evening Standard, please send an email or leave a comment as I'd like to know if anybody cared enough to visit as a result.)

It’s the revival that nobody wanted: constantly toured kiddy fare and led by someone off of a reality show. In all honesty, though - and that’s generally what readers want from a critic - I love this show. It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best (that remains Jesus Christ Superstar in my book) or even my favourite (Starlight Express) but Joseph is a fun turn-your-brain-off evening, and it’s got some excellent numbers (“Close Every Door,” “Any Dream Will Do,” and my personal favourite ALW song ever, “Pharaoh Story.”) It’s also been about ten years since I last saw the show, when ex-pop idol Deborah Gibson was touring the US as the narrator. That said, I also didn’t want to pay £30 for a recycled production (more on that later.) Fortunately a few rows in the gods are sold for £15, and since I was at Friday’s Mathilde reading next door at the Vaudeville I figured it wouldn’t hurt to pop into the Adelphi and see if cheap seats were left. Fortunately they were, and it turned out that Lee Mead was in fact not on vacation (he was earlier in the week) so all of the leads were in.

Now, before I nitpick the production to bits, I want to get something out of the way: I had a great time and left with a much needed smile on my face. I wouldn’t tell people to see this Joseph if they were in London for a visit when there are more unique things running in the West End, but it’s a fun night for locals who may have held off until the hype subsided.

Now, as I said before, much of this production is recycled: the sets and costumes were both pulled out of storage following the Palladium run and subsequent tour (featuring Lizi Hateley, Jason Donovan, and Philip Schoenfeld) from the early 90’s. The direction and choreography are based on that production as well, though I’m sure that updates have been put in and the production generally refreshed.

Unfortunately said fresh outlook does not apply to Jenna Lee-James, who narrates the show with a powerhouse voice that can belt to kingdom come but lacks stage presence as a character. Word is that Lloyd Webber prefers it this way - that the narrator is a simple storyteller - but I really don’t. In most productions outside of the Lord’s grasp the Narrator is more involved, and while not active in the story, is someone clearly enjoying the ride. It’s the difference between saying “Look, Joseph is getting done in by his brothers” and “Look, this spoiled brat is being smacked down by the ensemble - isn’t it cool?” with a Willy Wonka-esque glint in the eye. This is a juicy role to play with relish and it’s wasted in London productions (FWIW I felt the same about Linzi Hateley on the 1991 London CD - great voice, sang it well, but she sounded so bored when compared to Kristine Fraelich on the 1995 US tour or Jodi Benson in the US in 1997 and Kristin Hölk on the German cast recording.)

Lee Mead, the reality show winner in the title role, does a fine job. If he doesn’t have Donny Osmond’s vocal flourishes it’s not for lack of talent or capacity, and I suspect he’d do more with the score if he were further away from London - this is one time where it’s OK not to sing the script if done with taste (unlike a certain show which comes to mind.) I also forgive him for sounding like a muppet at times - it's endearing bordering on adorable.

Dean Collinson is fine as the Elvis-impersonator Pharaoh, though I question his choice to throw in an unnecessary mild profanity (“Damn I’m good.”) Arguably it helps cement the show on the family side of “children’s show” vs. “family show” (the latter having a some mildly mature or risque material for mum and dad that the kids won’t get) but it doesn’t add anything - though neither does the new song “King of my Heart.” That said, I’d rather have “King” than yet another reprise of “Song of the King” which got two full reprises (meaning the song was sung in full three times in a row) during the early/mid 90’s productions.

Sadly I didn’t spot any standouts in the ensemble. So it goes.

It’s uncomfortable to be quite so negative in this review given that I enjoyed myself and am tempted to return to the production after the cast change, but in a way this is the curse of reviewing Shakespeare on a more populist and entertaining level: once you see a show a certain number of times (this was trip 8 or 9 to Joseph in addition to a stack of cast recordings and video clips) you start making comparisons. I’m not going to say people should run to the Adelphi, but I’d recommend bringing first timers to the theatre here instead of The Lion King..and maybe some jaded regulars as well: despite whatever cynicism and crass commercial work behind this run, the material has such an innocence and charm at its core that it’s hard not to be won over by the end of the night.

Where: Adelphi Theatre
When: M/W/Sa @ 19:30, Tu @ 19:00, W/Sa @ 15:00
How Much: £15-50, top price varies by night.
Concessions: Check with the box office.
---------------------------
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £30. This’ll get you stalls any night at TKTS.
RZ Other Notes: I paid £15 for my ticket on the day and got back row centre of the upper circle. It’s vertically far from the stage but a clear, unrestricted view and a great bargain if you just want to see the show without shelling out top price (my dinner wound up costing more than my ticket.) As it turned out there were multiple rows empty and while the ushers held people to their original locations for the first act I was able to move from Row N to Row G at the interval.

On another note, the only show I’ve seen more times (and with more casts) than Joseph is RENT.

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