Stage Door Review 2022
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book & lyrics by Tim Rice, directed by Laurence Connor
Michael Harrison & David Mirvish, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
December 16, 2022-February 18, 2023
Narrator: “Some folks dream of the wonders they'll do
Before their time on this planet is through
Some just don’t have anything planned”
If what you look for in a musical is just a lot of fun with no intellectual or emotional demands, then Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre will be right up your street. Mirvish Productions has brought Joseph to Toronto directly from London’s West End so you feel privileged to see one of the top shows of London just down on King Street.
Yet, Joseph does not have to be as thought- and feeling-deficient as it is here. Joseph as directed by Max Reimer for Drayton Entertainment in 2017 proved that a Joseph with an emotional undercurrent makes for a far more satisfying experience. Laurence Connor, who directs the Joseph playing in Toronto, clearly views the show differently.
It is easy to look at the score and see that despite the Biblical setting many of the songs are pastiches of a wide range of musical styles – jazz for “Joseph’s Dreams”, Country-Western for “One More Angel in Heaven”, the Charleston for “Potiphar”, Elvis-style rock and roll for “Song of the King”, French ballads for "Those Canaan Days” and calypso for “Benjamin Calypso”.
It is also easy to think that since the show was originally written as a pop cantata for a children’s choir that neither Andrew Lloyd Webber nor Tim Rice took the subject seriously. On the other hand, to think this you would need to ignore the fact that an early version of the show was performed at St. Paul’s Cathedral where it was acclaimed as a pop oratorio.
If you take Connor’s view that the show is just for fun, you would have to explain why Rice has set up the story as one that a Narrator is telling a group of children. She sings, “But all that I say can be told another way / In the story of a boy whose dream came true”. Why then frame the story as one that doesn’t mean anything when the Narrator clearly thinks it does?
If you look at the songs that are pastiches, all are sung by people who are Joseph’s enemies. When Joseph sings in “Joseph’s Dreams”, his manner of singing is contrasted with the jazzy style of his brothers. That ought to tell us that Lloyd Webber and Rice are satirizing those who oppose Joseph rather than the entire story of Joseph.
And yet that is exactly the impression that Connor’s version of the musical gives. The two worst examples are “One More Angel in Heaven” and “Those Canaan Days”, sung in both cases by Joseph’s brothers. Connor has decided that virtually every song in the musical should be extended into a dance number. Sam Davis is credited with the dance arrangements. Yet, in “One More Angel in Heaven”, the brothers tell Jacob that Joseph, his favourite son, has died. How in any conceivable way is it appropriate that a song with that news should turn into a Country Western hoedown for the whole ensemble? Well, it can do, if, like Connor, you think the story means nothing.
“Those Canaan Days” finds Joseph’s brothers starving in Dothan, remembering the bounty of Canaan and thinking this is a punishment for selling Joseph into slavery. Lloyd Webber sets the song as a French ballad à la Piaf but Connor uses it as an excuse for the brothers to indulge in 19th-century style overacting as a way of garnering cheap laughs. Worse, Sam Davis has arranged for the song to morph into a can-can. Women wearing headscarves suddenly lift their skirts revealing multicoloured petticoats and begin high kicks and leg twirling. This is all very embarrassing. It’s as if we’re forced to watch a dirty old man’s notion that all modest women are really sexpots in disguise. It doesn’t help that one of the brothers shouts,”I said ‘Canaan, not ‘can-can!’”. A lousy pun doesn’t excuse a worse idea.
Connor’s poor non-dance-related ideas are concentrated in Act 2. The worst of these occurs during the Pharaoh’s song, “Song of the King”. Connor thinks it’s not funny enough that Lloyd Webber and Rice imagine Pharaoh as Elvis, so he has huge golden electric guitars fly in to the hands of statues of Ra and Anubis, whose heads then turn toward the audience and and whose mouths start to move. It’s a lot of expense for little effect and part of the anything-for-a-joke aesthetic into which the show rapidly descends.
In contrast to Connor’s superficial view of the musical are the ardent performances of the entire cast. The character with the largest role is not Joseph but the Narrator who is on stage for most of the running time. Vanessa Fisher is wonderfully warm and expressive and communicates a real sense of fun. She has a very strong voice and seemingly unlimited energy. One of Connor’s ideas is to have the Narrator also play the roles of Jacob, Potiphar’s Wife and Joseph’s jailer in Egypt – parts usually taken by members of the chorus. The Narrator certainly does not need more to sing than she already does, but these roles do demonstrate Fisher’s wide range in acting from an aged man to an hilariously lascivious woman.
The downside of Connor’s choice is that whenever we see Jacob we do not think “There’s Joseph’s father” but “There’s the Narrator in a beard”. The relationship between Joseph and his father is the most important in the story. Jacob’s favouritism of Joseph makes Joseph’s brothers jealous, Jacob is unconsolable when he hears the (false) news that Joseph is dead, and Jacob is overjoyed when Joseph returns alive. Unfortunately, using the Narrator in disguise minimizes each of these aspects that would increase the story’s emotional content. No matter how well Fisher plays the part, the disguise takes us out of the story not into it.
We are lucky that Jac Yarrow is playing Joseph in Toronto since it was he who was chosen personally by Lloyd Webber in 2019 to play the part in this production. Yarrow was only 21 at the time and still in drama school, but it was his impassioned performance of “Close Every Door”, the only serious song in the show, that won over the composer. Yarrow’s performance of the song equally wins over the Toronto audience. Yarrow has a full rich voice, more mature sounding than you would expect given his age, that fully brings out the anguish of Joseph in prison and of the Israelites in general facing repression. It’s the number that receives the longest and loudest applause of the evening not merely because it is performed so beautifully but because it is the only song brimming with emotion.
Given how powerful Yarrow is in this song and how amiable he is in his other big number “Any Dream Will Do”, it’s really a shame that Connor directs Yarrow to play Joseph in a generally unsympathetic fashion. When Jacob gives Joseph the “coat of many colours”, Connor has Yarrow parade about in it as if deliberately inciting the brothers’ jealousy. Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s Dream in “Pharaoh’s Dream Explained” and explains what kind of man the Pharaoh needs. He concludes “Who this man could be / I just don't know!” Rather than depicting Joseph as an innocent, Connor has Yarrow point to himself during this refrain which makes a joke of the simple-minded Pharaoh’s choosing Joseph rather than an unexpected honour. Then, when Joseph returns home to his father in what should be a tender reunion – the beloved child thought dead now found alive – Connor has Joseph arrive in a golden Egyptian chariot in all the grandeur of his Egyptian finery as if the height of wealth and power Joseph has achived were more important than his reunion with his grieving father.
Tosh Wanogho-Maud is a real live-wire as Pharaoh. Tall, muscular and full of vitality he revels in his entrance song “Song of the King”, first rendering it as intended as Elvis would and then making it his own by moving the song and its reprises into James Brown territory. Wanogho-Maud has the look, he has the voice, he has the moves and he makes a huge impression.
Connor’s one good choice is to have children play some of the roles normally played by adults, such as some of Joseph’s brothers, Potiphar, the Baker and the Butler. This is a good idea since it links the show back to its origins as a pop cantata or oratorio for children. The children, all Canadian, do an extraordinary job in singing, dancing and acting.
Like many productions Connor has decided to conclude the show with what is call the “Joseph Megamix”, essentially a nine-minute-long reprise of all of the songs in the show only with a disco beat. I had noticed that the amplification was creeping upwards during the finale. When the Narrator asks the audience “Would you like some more?”, that seems to be the cue for the sound technician to turn the volume all the way to the top. If I were not reviewing the show I would have left because it made my ears hurt. And they hurt for at least half an hour more after I was home. This is not good. The assumption that loudness equals excitement is false. The sound was so loud the voices and instruments become a kind of mush underlain by a booming beat.
I went in to Joseph anxious to see the show that had won so many rave reviews in London. I couldn’t leave fast enough because, except for Yarrow’s signature song, what could have been a pleasant experience pained me in more ways than one.
Joseph, Lloyd Webber’s first musical, is not complicated and is not meant to be. It’s a musical that has emotion and innocence at its core, if a director chooses to see them. I know this because I’ve seen it done this way by Drayton in a far simpler, less expensive production. The present show is loud, brash, very pretty but also very empty. In 2021 the Manchester Sun called it “A rip-roaring Joseph for the 21st century”. I’m afraid the paper may be correct in this but not in the positive way intended.
Photo: Vanessa Fisher as Jacob (centre with beard) and Jac Yarrow as Joseph (kneeling) with the ensemble; Vanessa Fisher as the Narrator; Tosh Wanogho-Maud as Pharaoh singing “Song of the King”; Jac Yarrow as Joseph singing “Close Every Door”. © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann.
For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.