There’s one thing you should always do when attending a Hale Centre Theatre production in Gilbert: get to your seat as early as possible. Much of the fun of any Hale production is savoring the new design and atmosphere of the arena styled theatre with its surroundings, individually created to reflect both the setting and the tone of the show you’re about to see.
When entering for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, at first glance you may think the designers had perhaps created a retread of their recent production of Aida. After all, both musicals take place in the desert setting of ancient Egypt. But a closer look changes everything. Where Aida’s overall Hale design was somber and serious, a reflection of the moving, tragic tale that was soon to unfold, Joseph’s intention is to be nothing more than playful and upbeat, peppered with good, often silly, infectious humor, and it shows.
Among the bright, colorfully designed tablets of desert settings that hang on the walls around you, look closely and you’ll see a Camel Crossing sign poking out of a sand dune. There’s a stylized, 3D cartoon picture of a desert sun jutting out from another; burning turrets of effectively looking fake flames flank the exits; and if you glance up, you’ll see a hanging sign reading Cafe Canaan, something that will later light up during the comically remorseful production number, Those Canaan Days.
Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice when they were teenagers – Lloyd Webber was 17 while Rice had just turned 20 – what began in the late sixties as a short piece for the choir of a London high-school has over the years grown into a full blown Broadway musical. That short, original sixties score remains, but in 1991 when the show was reinvented for a run at the famous London Palladium, songs were beefed up, a chorus would be repeated, and repeated, and lengthy musical dance interludes would suddenly appear, essentially padding the mini cantata into something that could justify Palladium seat prices.
Plus, at that time in the British pop scene, the charts were populated with a glut of disco-like mega mixes of popular songs; The Beatles were given a mega-mix, so were the hits of Abba. There was even a Glenn Miller mega-mix. Considering the popularity of the trend, Lloyd Webber found the perfect way of adding an extra ten minutes to the production – a disco mega-mix of Joseph revisiting the whole score, and it worked. It was even released as a UK single, receiving a ton of radio airplay that worked as free advertising, and turned Joseph into a must-see, London production.
Among the several versions that Joseph has gone through since that original high-school production, it’s the 1991 revision that most theatres, both in the UK and here in America, use today. With just a couple though significant changes made to its production, it’s the ‘91 version you’ll see at Hale, including the Mega-Mix. Curiously, what’s missing is the show’s signature theme. Usually, Joseph’s opener, Any Dream Will Do, bookends the musical. Here, for whatever reason – perhaps licensing – the song only appears in its shortened reprise form at the end.
Plus, there are no schoolchildren observing the events and backing the choruses. The last national tour of 2015 removed the children, and the charm of the overall sound, designed from the beginning for youthful choir voices, suffered as a result. Logistically, it’s easy to see why the non-traditional spacing of a theatre-in-the-round production would omit a full child’s choir. Where would you put them? But interestingly what failed on the last professional tour works perfectly fine at Hale. Here, because of the attractive looking and mostly teenage ensemble, dancing and singing their way through this colorful, high-energy production, the voices, particularly the female voices, nicely compliment the young sound that Lloyd Webber was always going for. The end result is that Hale Centre Theatre’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is truly delightful.
Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, where the score was rock infused throughout, Joseph is pure pop, incorporating all kinds of comical musical styles from around the globe, thus One More Angel in Heaven begins as cowboys singing on the prairie, then develops into a country hoedown at the state fair picnic, Potiphar has a flapper look, Go, Go, Go Joseph turns into a fluorescent night at the disco, Those Canaan Days is a table at the Cafe Canaan, a Parisian restaurant absent of food due to the famine, and Benjamin Calypso is just as the title suggests, a defense of young Benjamin (Brandon Brown) by his brothers sung as a Jamaican calypso, lead by Judah (Aaron Ford).
While the show tells the story of Joseph (Matt Krantz) and his colorful coat, the bulk of the lyrics are sung by its narrator, Alanna Kalbfleisch, and she’s terrific to both listen to and watch. Some of those high Lloyd Webber notes are demanding to say the least, but Kalbfleisch hits them right out of the arena while injecting a lot of new, unwritten humor into the proceedings. As a story told in song, the Lloyd Webber/Rice book is really a libretto without direction, one that gives director Cambrian James an opportunity to invent and create new settings, tailor-made for an in-the-round experience. When the brothers enter into a hoedown, you’ll catch Kalbfleisch accompanying the music playing a washboard, and when later the brothers sing of their woe-is-me hunger and the lack of food on the table, unlike those good ol’ Canaan days, Kalbfleisch enters carrying an open bar of Toblerone chocolate.
Krantz, with his boy-next door, healthy good looks, can’t help but remind audiences of Donny Osmond’s portrayal of Joseph. Despite contributing lines to several of the songs, the character only ever possessed two solos in the score. Now that one of them is oddly absent, Krantz has only the one song to call his own, the ballad Close Every Door, but he delivers it with all the passion and clarity the song deserves. Sung from behind a closed cell, Krantz’s powerful vocal stops the show.
But the real crowd-pleaser is Stephen Serna’s Pharaoh by way of Elvis; he brings the house down. Sporting an over-sized black mullet that looks as though Ridley Scott’s alien attached itself permanently to Serna’s head, you can’t be sure whether the actor is wearing a wig or if the wig is wearing the actor. Either way, the result is laugh-out-loud funny, both visually and by performance. Serna’s hip-swiveling Pharaoh really is the King, and even though the sequence is short, the impact leaves a lasting impression throughout the remainder of the show.
Supported by the non-stop energy of an outstanding ensemble who appear to be forever changing into one costume after another, Hale’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is an unrestrained, infectious theatrical experience that is over all too quickly. And try not smiling during the concluding, disco-infused, hand-clapping mega-mix. It can’t be done.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is performing at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert now until October 7.
Pictures courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw