Cortland Repertory adds biblical bounce to the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
By James MacKillop
At one time he looked like Jesus’ little brother. No, not the biblical Joseph, son of Jacob in the Old Testament (Genesis 30-37), but the musical Joseph with the long title. Shortly after Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar became an international sensation in 1971, all their properties became hot. Producers noticed that the team, while still in their prodigious teens, had written a Bible-based children’s cantata to be performed in schools. Glossy productions and Donny Osmond would follow in subsequent decades, but the show has always been malleable, something waiting for a director to reshape. So Cortland Repertory Theatre director Bert Bernardi gives us a Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as we’re not used to seeing it.
Now the action begins in what looks like a parochial school classroom. Nine pre-teen youngsters in tidy uniforms are listening politely to their lessons. In respect of child labor laws, Cortland Repertory rotates two casts, named Pyramid and Sphinx, in these roles. While authorized in Tim Rice’s book, the framing device is usually jettisoned here. From the rear comes the threatening figure of the Principal (Danny Blaylock), who spots a malingerer. But wait: The Principal is wearing non-regulation black Converse sneakers, and shortly after the Principal moves behind the blackboard, the lesson turns into a live-action retelling of the Genesis story with everyone but the Narrator (golden-throated Jacqueline Nuzzo) in black Converse sneakers.
Those shoes are only part of director Bernardi and costumer Jimmy Johansmeyer’s plan. All the costumes, even when the female chorus is dressed as modest Hebrew damsels or sultry Egyptian slaves, have a kind of faux parks-and-rec look. They’re carefully designed, original to this production and probably quite expensive, but they suggest the makeshift. This underscores the artifice of the tale-telling, allowing Bernardi to bring back the original classrooms, Pyramid or Sphinx, to interact in subsequent musical numbers. This sometimes puts youthful vocal chords at a strain when they have to compete with the costumed players, all of whom are products of university drama and music programs.
Even though Joseph achieved a peak in local production about 10 years ago, when we might regularly see two versions a year, it is by no means a tattered warhorse crying out for rejuvenation. Lloyd Weber the kid composer is just more interesting than his middleaged reincarnation. (See Sunset Boulevard and The Woman in White, if you must.) His and Rice’s youthful insouciance in making the Pharaoh (Bradford B. Frost) an Elvis impersonator is still a hoot, even though that’s now a well-worn device. The only ways in which Joseph shows any wear is in the spoofs. Caribbean calypso is now so faded that audiences might need Cliff’s Notes to get the gag in “Benjamin Calypso.” But Bernardi and Johansmeyer freshen up the disco beat of the first act’s closer, “Go Go Go Joseph,” by putting the female chorus in cheerleader outfits.
Whereas the conventional wisdom now sees Jesus Christ Superstar as far more about the cult of celebrity than the Gospels, Joseph straddles the line. Many episodes in the story, the betrayal by his 11 brothers and his pre-Freudian dream interpretation, look like symbolic tribal history or otherwise invite skeptical inquiry. At the same time Joseph, unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, is framed as a kind of Sunday-school lesson, underscored by Bernardi’s direction. That means Jacob and his other sons might be seen as gross or cruel, but the effect is to make the lessons more amusing rather than to refute them. The parody in Joseph seems more directed against the tawdry Hollywood tradition of biblical epics featuring Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston rather than of scripture. Underneath the comic surface is a kind of ironic reverence in Joseph’s signature song, “Any Dream Will Do,” reprised at the finale with Joseph and the Narrator leading the company.
Among the players doing the heaviest lifting are, first, the Narrator (Jacqueline Nuzzo), who’s not only in 15 numbers but is the only who has to keep straight all the peregrinations, rising and falling fortunes. Nuzzo does not come with the klaxon volume we remember from other Narrators, which is just as well, and her precise but mellow diction guides rather than dominate. Johansmeyer’s soignee costumes keep her separate from the rest of the roughhouse company in the often swirling dance numbers choreographed by Cynthia Halpin.
Along with a silvery tenor voice, Austin Colby gives the title role of Joseph a beguiling earnestness that well supports Bernardi’s overview. His persona emerges only gradually as he’s essentially a supporting singer in early numbers, as when the many-colored coat is introduced and he is abused by the brothers. He becomes the dominant player really only after he resists the lovely wiles of Mrs. Potiphar (high-kicking Ruth Kennedy) and goes on to his first solo, “Close Every Door.” He becomes more dominant in the second act where he is seen as more prescient, resilient and magnanimous, not bad lessons to preach.
Hulking Danny Blaylock, seen earlier this month as “Cellophane Man” Amos in Cortland Rep’s Chicago, cuts three different grown-up roles, first as the Principal in the framing story and then as the not-so-good father Jacob, who introduces “Joseph’s Coat.” In a rapid costume change he’s transformed into the slimy opportunist Potiphar, who has collected much gold from trade in pyramids.
Bradford B. Frost’s Pharaoh/Elvis dominates much of the action at the beginning of the second act with “Poor Poor Pharaoh/Song of the King” and the trio with the Narrator and Joseph, “Stone the Crows.” This is when Joseph’s power raises him to second man in Egypt. Frost’s Pharaoh may sport a late 1950s-model greasy duck’s ass ’do, but in other regards his spoof is blessedly light.
Two of the wittiest musical parodies are led by different brothers, starting with Levi (Brendon North) in the country-western “One More Angel in Heaven.” After the famine predicted by Joseph catches up with the brothers, it takes Reuben (Gabriel Beck) to warble the Parisian torch song lament, “Those Canaan Days,” with choked Rs and absurdly long notes. Director Bernardi adds an extra comic touch by giving an enlarged derriere to the unnamed female hoofer provoking the apache duet following the lament.
This has been a great summer for Cortland Repertory. After giving us the delights of vice in Chicago, they show with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that familyfriendly virtue can be fun, too.
This production runs through July 30.
See Times Table for information.