When Broadway sent the last national touring production of the comic operetta Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to the valley it cut its one most important element, and it made all the difference: the children’s chorus. Considering the show began in the seventies as a fifteen minute piece for a London school for boys, the whole thing was intended for youthful sounding voices to be heard throughout, that was always the point.
The success of Jesus Christ Superstar inspired writers Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to go back and expand it – here in America it was actually billed as a follow up – but no matter what was added, enlarged or simply beefed up to make a fifteen minute piece into an eventual ninety minute production for children and adults alike, the design of a musical supported by a chorus of children remained. For obvious reasons, this was never going to be an issue with Valley Youth Theatre. With its older, experienced adult members playing leads, a solid support of VYT members playing wives, brothers, slaves and the general ensemble, plus – and here’s where the production totally charms – an engaging cast of children in the chorus supporting everything, every step of the way, you’ll leave the theatre with the broadest of smiles. The whole thing will win you over in the same way Joseph eventually wins back his coat of many colors. But there’s something else, and this is the most important point of all: this is the show you wanted the last national touring production to be, but wasn’t.
Despite its many incarnations, the current version that has settled into the production we usually see today is the one that developed at the London Palladium in the early nineties, and that’s the one VYT premiered at Herberger Center’s Main Stage this past weekend. There’s no doubt, like the crazy-quilt of colors and the assorted material that make up Joseph’s infamous coat, the show is an oddball patchwork of musical styles all thrown in together to make one lively piece of musical theatre that is as bizarrely eccentric as it is funny. Thus we get a country ballad that breaks into a knee-slapping hoedown, a French ballad of sadness and remorse, a Charleston inspired tale of an Egyptian millionaire who invested in pyramids, a Jamaican calypso (performed with humor and gusto by Clay Rollon), an Elvis styled rock ‘n roller number, and a large scale disco production with a chorus so gloriously infectious it won’t matter how many times it’s repeated, you’ll find yourself wanting to hear it just one more time.
Plus, the whole thing is wrapped up in a large scale, disco pounding Mega Mix that revisits every song in the show – it’s like a mini version of everything already heard – presented with a continuous hand-clapping, pulsating beat that was originally introduced to not only pad the London Palladium production by a further ten minutes but was also used as a hit single on British radio to promote the show. If older readers remember Stars on 45, it’s like that.
Once again, with the available pool of young talent in the valley, director Bobb Cooper’s colorful production thrives on several levels, but it’s with his casting choices where he truly succeeds. William Deihl solidly establishes his wealthy Potiphar with his oversized credit card the moment he appears, plus who better to play his vixen of a seductress wife than ariZoni nominee Carly Makani Copp. Jack Rose is a scene stealer; he brings the house down with his Elvis inspired Pharoah, not only singing like the king but at one point playfully toying with the audience and using the Conrad Birdie inspired “Suffer,” as a punch line. At the center of it all is newcomer to VYT, Nathan Sheppard as Joseph whose handsome good looks and strong vocals anchor the production. His Close Every Door solo sung in a prison cell is a memorable and moving key element to the show’s first half. It’s a great song and Nathan sells it for everything it’s worth. But here’s what’s really interesting about the show. The way the piece is written, the story and its events may revolve around the character of Joseph, but the star billing belongs to another, and here Bobb Cooper’s casting choice hits the bullseye.
Originally tailored for a male voice but altered on subsequent revivals for a female, the part of the Narrator has developed into one of the most vocally demanding roles required on Broadway. It’s the character that holds everything together; without it there’s no show. Appearing in a variety of good supporting roles in ensembles for both VYT and Spotlight Youth Theatre, over the past few years Payton Bioletto has displayed a talent for both song and dance coupled with a winning personality that, like the children’s chorus, charms the moment she makes her initial entrance. It’s not just a matter of singing well – which she does – or that she can appear strikingly eye-catching on stage – which she also does – but it’s that extra ingredient that every musical performer needs to stand out, and it can’t be taught; it’s a natural quality of warmth and likeability that comes without force. Payton displayed much of that quality two years ago in Seusical The Musical as the pigeon-toed ukulele playing Gertrude McFuzz, but as Joseph’s Narrator she fulfills every promise ever suggested. When the children’s chorus surrounds the Narrator it’s like watching the 4th grade hugging their favorite teacher; it’s surprisingly touching and it’s Payton that makes the moment feel real.
With a spectacular dazzling set design appropriately lit by Michael Eddy, outstanding costumes by Karol Cooper, a tight orchestra under Mark Fearey’s direction that never drowns the vocals, fun, energetic choreography from Lucas Coatney with assistance from VYT alumni Elyssa Blonder and Bobb Cooper’s ever inventive direction – the selfie the narrator takes with the cast is laugh-out-loud funny – VYT’s Joseph is hands down the most fun production of the summer. It leaves Broadway’s national touring production lost in our Arizona desert dust.
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official VYT website.
Pictures courtesy of Barry Smith