If you can’t have fun with mainstream religion, your sense of humor needs a serious upgrade. Me, I’m willing to bet that Jesus would’ve gotten a hoot out of a parody that made the rounds a while back, wherein a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper showed the table littered with McDonald’s bags and half-eaten Quarter-Pounders. Then there’s the take-off on the Terminator movie series, with a Schwarzenegger look-alike trying to rescue Jesus from his arrest despite Jesus’ objections. The ichthys, or Jesus fish, doesn’t escape scrutiny either; some bumper stickers carry sketches of the animal with a gnarly hook in its mouth.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the musical that pretty much got things rolling for composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyricist Tim Rice, may take its cue from such whimsy. It’s a modern account of the story of Joseph, who in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Genesis became ancient Egypt’s second most powerful man following his sale into slavery at Canaan. Dream interpretation, a farfetched secret identity, a pharaoh’s horny wife and modern musical treatments with everything from country and western to rap to rockabilly hold sway here, with producer Lamb’s Players Theatre having its usual good time with stories that invite a certain amount of off-the-cuff portrayal.
But even amid Lamb’s’ unfailing enthusiasm for its work, this show lacks a primary element found in some of the company’s other musical efforts — context. A sorely underwritten Narrator role and a cursory treatment of the source material lead to a fun but threadbare account here, one whose inventiveness unfolds largely for inventiveness’ sake.
Trying to extract a Bible story without a reference to God is like performing heart surgery with no regard for the brain that powers the organ.
According to Lloyd Weber and Rice, there’s a lot more behind the story than Joseph’s imprisonment, rise to power and eventual forgiveness of the three brothers who sold him into captivity in the first place. Pestilence comes into play when Joseph interprets a series of dreams as seven-year cycles of feast and famine (“Song of the King”); a caper involving a stolen cup leads to a revelation of a brother’s persistent greed (“Who’s the Thief?”); a rejuvenated Joseph sends for his grieving father Jacob (“Jacob in Egypt”), wherein the family is reunited and stronger for Joseph’s travail. The subtext thus comes to a close, with Jacob bestowing the so-called “coat of many colours” on Joseph, his second youngest and favorite of his 12 sons and stepsons— this is the garment that fueled the penitent brothers’ original jealousies and plot to send Joe up the river.
The story does have its way with production values — narrator Joy Yandell sings and moves her way above the piece, her character unsaddled with limitations of time and space; Kürt Norby’s clearly having fun as both Jacob and rich Egyptian Potiphar; and David S. Humphrey’s upstanding, all-American bearing colors Joe’s sympathetic look and feel. There’s also a self-effacing technical glitch at the show’s beginning; it doesn’t quite come off, but its heart is in the right place, gently illustrating the production’s send-up nature.
But re-enactment is nothing without the proper motivation — and that’s where this piece’s biggest gaps lie. While Yandell’s character effectively guides us through the action, she’s devoid of comment on the clashes of God-given moralities that drive the story. Similarly, Joseph’s benevolence toward his brothers looks unconditional, as though there’s no history behind it. I hate using the word “sketch” to describe the story (director Robert Smyth, the force behind Lamb’s’ stunning Les Misérables last fall, absolutely knows the meaning of the word), but its traces creep into the action too often not to notice. Without citations from the Bible or its Central Figures as reference points, Joseph’s story looks very much like any other piece on reconciliation. Compare it with the later Godspell, based on a series of parables from the Book of Matthew. The show invokes God’s name at the outset and re-enacts the Eucharist amid the cast’s invitation to wine at intermission.
Yandell and Humphrey know when not to exchange belt for phrasing. Bandmates David Rumley, Andy Ingersoll, Rik Ogden and Oliver Shirley are on their games. Jon Lorenz’s musical direction and Colleen Kollar Smith’s choreography comport with both mood and intent, as do Mike Buckley’s set, Nathan Peirson’s lights, Patrick Duffy’s sound and Jeanne Reith and Michelle Hunt’s costumes. In the spirit of Lamb’s’ technical traditions, this piece is surely not out of place.
In fact, the company typically gets a lot of mileage from its musical history; its self-produced miXtape, a nod to the music of the 1980s, ran close to 95 years, and its Boomers, a revue of tunes from a generation before that, pops up to critical and audience acclaim. For all its energy and fun, Joseph just doesn’t exude an equivalent substance. Lamb’s last mounted Joseph in 2007, and although I reviewed it favorably, I secretly harbored some misgivings I couldn’t articulate. Now, maybe I know why.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Jan. 31. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs through March 29 at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave. Downtown. $34-$64. 619-437-0600, lambsplayers.org.