"Joseph" a Knockout Show

By David A. Rosenberg

It’s not true that Andrew Lloyd Webber writes only schmaltz. Before those huge pop tarts, “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats,” before the bombastic “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Woman in White,” the British billionaire teemed with lyricist Tim Rice to turn out the sensational soft-rock “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita.”

 For proof, see the knockout “Joseph” at Downtown Cabaret. Originally written in 1968 as a 15-minute children’s cantata for a London all-boys school, it has become a staple musical around the world (more than 20,000 productions). Based loosely on the Bible, it’s “Godspell” without the tragedy.

 True, it has pretensions of seriousness (“A story of a boy whose dreams came true / And it could be you”). Yet it’s really a kaleidoscope of as many colors as Joseph’s coat with takeoffs on rock, burlesque, country, calypso and French tunes.

At Cabaret, as directed and choreographed by Scott Thompson, the evening is good-natured, peppy and witty. Although the inventive production takes liberties with an admittedly loose work, neither Thompson nor his collaborators stretch it out of shape, remaining true to the show’s already anachronistic underpinnings without going overboard.

All the frenzy has drawbacks, however. Whatever themes there are – such as Intimations of the founding of Israel (“I know I’ll find peace of mind / Because I have been promised a land of my own”) or ideas on redemption and revenge – are here given short shrift. More, the long-time coming, psychedelic “megamix” of song reprises and curtain call at the end is awkward and anti-climactic.

But, hey, it’s a fun night for the entire family with great tunes like “Any Dream Will Do,” an easy-to-follow plot and a little lesson thrown in. (Be nice to your relatives.)

Among the highlights are a funny hoedown (“One More Angel in Heaven”), a French cabaret song and Apache dance (“Those Canaan Days”) and the Pharaoh’s Elvis impersonation. As Joseph, Kris Stock is sturdy of figure and voice, while Jodi Langel is a powerful Narrator, Jesse Luttrell a show-stopping Pharaoh and J. Nycole Ralph a hot Potiphar’s Wife. Others in the 23-person cast are as energetic and versatile.

Stan Wietrzychowski’s musical direction is impeccable, as is the band.

J Branson’s scenic design with its evocative projections, Lesley Neilson-Bowman’s droll costumes and Joe Boerst’s clear sound design are decided assets.

And, of course, a special nod to Hugh Hallinan who not only designed the lights in his usual brilliant fashion, but also produced the show. More like this should put Downtown Cabaret back on its dynamic feet.

This review by Dave Rosenberg appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010


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