- Beck Center's staging of Joseph is a success of biblical contortions.
There's a marvelous vibe coming out of Beck Center in Lakewood these days, and it's powered by a combination of risk-taking, artistic excellence and a commitment to diverse theatrical experiences. Let's face it, there aren't many theaters either interested in or capable of simultaneously mounting the following three productions: a gigantic family-friendly musical based on a Bible story, a raunchily funny look at life in New York's gay community after AIDS, and a miniature one-act about a flaming middle-aged gay man who cohabits with his young and (momentarily) frontally nude boyfriend. And although the last two shows, Jeffrey and Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach just closed, the simple fact that they coexisted with the current production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is inspired and gutsy.
However, bold scheduling only gets you so far, if the plays themselves are staged indifferently. Happily, both Jeffrey and Mr. Charles were delightful (not to mention blush-inducing, for some) while, because of a remarkable convergence of directorial imagination and performance skill, this Joseph is an enthusiastic romp from start to finish. One of the most overproduced shows on the planet, Andrew Lloyd Webber's extended skit about Jacob and his dozen sons seems to be performed continually, almost everywhere. In addition to this Beck version, there are at least two other theaters, plus several churches and schools, doing the damn thing, and if you check your basement, there may be another one going on down there.
The story is, like much of Webber's material, as simple as a toddler's board book. Jacob's favored son, Joseph, has a dream, a destiny, a mission to fulfill -- but he's sold into slavery, to the neighborhood pharaoh, by his jealous brothers. Lots of singing ensues, and humorous anachronisms abound as the resilient and upwardly mobile Joseph (sort of a George Stephanopolous in a toga) ends up as the pharaoh's right-hand man. After some mistaken-identity issues, Jacob's brood gets back together and learns the moral of the story right on cue.
This could be (and frequently is) pretty tedious stuff, unless you're a beaming relative of one of the cute kids in the extensive children's ensemble. But this fate is averted by director Kevin Joseph Kelly's rigorous attention to every comedic detail, turning each of the linked song-scenes into distinct and delightfully engaging nuggets. Oddly, the show-stopper among all the galvanizing production numbers is the hysterically morose and boozy "Those Canaan Days," sung in maudlin French style by the beret-bedecked, wine-swilling brothers. Swerving from one musical idiom to another (rock, C&W, calypso), the score by Webber and his lyrical sidekick, Tim Rice, is pleasant, though not terribly memorable -- but under the musical direction of Heidi Herczeg, each tune is delivered crisply and bristles with joy. Choreographer Martin Cespedes adds immeasurably to the fun by creating dance and movement that is calibrated perfectly to Kelly's comic sensibility and the demands of a large cast with wildly different levels of hoofing ability. Whether devising his own steps or sampling Bob Fosse, Cespedes keeps the production's energy swirling and spinning.
The extremely capable cast is led by Susan Emerick as the Narrator, a singer who could probably belt the rust off a '78 Buick with her incredible pipes. In the thanklessly bland role of Joseph, Pierre-Jacques Brault has a 3,000-watt grin and an endearing stage presence. Even though Elvis impersonations have now been devalued to a nickel a dozen, Curtis L. Young as the Pharaoh manages to cadge some laughs out of his turn as The King. Among the 11 other brothers, all of whom acquit themselves well, G.A. Taggett uses some deft timing to stand out as the elder bro, Reuben.
In this production, the costumes themselves almost constitute another character, and Jeffrey Smart's couture is clever (and quite sexy in places) without being intrusive. Likewise, Richard Gould's set design -- including a pouty, lipsticked Sphinx -- provides a campy environment for this frothy work. The only negative is a stapled-on reprise of several of the show's songs, performed by the entire company after the curtain call. This forced repetition of just-experienced music and choreography feels like theatrical acid reflux.
When all is sung and done, Joseph is a fairly pedestrian theatrical piece aimed primarily at young audiences, but this production squeezes every drop of entertainment value out of its pseudo-operatic, faux-rock, quasi-biblical pastiche. But the real praise must go to Beck Center's artistic director, Scott Spence, who, in addition to directing shows himself (such as the aforementioned Mr. Charles), is masterminding the development of one of the most vibrant and inclusive arts entities in the region. While Spence's personal "dreamcoat" may just be corduroy or tweed, the dreams he's bringing to life on Beck's stages are a pleasure to behold.