The idea that spawned Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will turn 40 years old in 2008, and it's helped fuel one local company's success over nearly half that span. Demand has led Lamb's Players Theatre to mount the musical a total of five times (counting the current entry) since and including 1989-that's before the group had even moved to its Coronado space from a dog-eared little venue in National City. That's one Dreamcoat every 3.6 seasons, roughly as often as the New York Yankees have won the World Series since Babe Ruth signed with the team.
Dreamcoat definitely lends itself to a populist mentality the way the Yankees do not. It's supposed to be a sweet, lighthearted, family-friendly take on the story of the Hebrew Bible's Joseph and his 11 brothers, with lots of music and technical flash, minimal character depth and an almost Dick and Jane storyline behind it. That's the way Lamb's has reportedly always seen it, and that's the way director Robert Smyth tries to play it.
But it's also supposed to be decidedly non-religionized. And in shying away from the religious element, composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyricist Tim Rice have sanitized it until it's lost almost all its historical import. Joe's story is one of the most profound tales of forgiveness in the annals of Christendom, yet the authors treat it like a fairytale neighborhood spat. There's not much left for Smyth to do except to stage a spectacle, which he normally does extremely well. But there's lightheartedness, and then there's fluff. This entry leans dangerously toward the latter.
Joseph and his crowd ran at the time of Egypt's Middle Kingdom, around 1650 B.C. Joseph would eventually become the nation's viceroy, but only after three of his brothers set him on the ride of his life. As it happens, he was the apple of his dad Jacob's eye, but his jealous sibs would have none of it. They sold him into slavery when he was about 17-one thing led to another, and he was soon imprisoned, suffering everything from routine beatings to the sloppy sexual advances of Zelicha, wife of Potiphar, a captain of the guard. Long-forfeit was his so-called coat of many colors, which boosted his capacity to see Egypt's distant future through dream interpretation.
But Joe was a model prisoner-his good behavior eventually caught the eye of his captors, and soon he ruled the Egyptian roost as advisor to the pharaoh. He'd reveal himself to his brothers and his father Jacob in time, his untold benevolence at the center of this unlikely reunion.
Amid forgiveness as a biblical concept, this is a good story. But Joseph's talents as a seer weren't the only thing that defined him. Turns out he was a hell of a farmer, like most of the populations around him; he foretold them the extended drought for which he spearheaded preparations and probably saved the country. You get little more than one measly number (“Pharaoh's Dreams Explained”) about that in this show, and you learn nothing about Zelicha's come-ons or Joe's prowess as a banker and a military man. Neither will you get wind of the coolest anecdote of all-that Joseph demanded the Egyptians take his bones with them when they flee to Israel (he and they would have a long wait, as he lived to 110). All those stories are steeped in religious lore-that's apparently too much for Weber and Rice's sense of correctness, and theater be damned.
As Jacob, the affable Keith Jefferson positively dotes on son Joseph, and big-voiced Spencer Moses cuts the properly wiry figure and hangdog facials as Joseph. Deborah Gilmour Smyth infuses the Narrator with the requisite joy, although her voice tilted a tad to the gravelly last weekend. Everybody else is fine, and Colleen Kollar's choreography has a nice picture-postcard feel.
From there, the reports aren't that flattering. The live music is a jumble of different genres-the inconsistency forces a continual shift in our focus (the too-too countrified “One More Angel in Heaven” clashes mightily against the tropics-tinged “Benjamin Calypso”), and Michelle Hunt's costumes leave little to the imagination to boot. The calypso number, in fact, is about the only one that invites the pre-fab palm trees (replete with blinking lights) on Mike Buckley's inexplicable set.
Say what you will about the Bible, but its stellar anecdotes and allegories are a fact of cultural life throughout much of the world. So is theater, for that matter. If the two want to join forces, they need to meet halfway. The Dreamcoat script is weighted far too zealously in favor of performance art, and this production takes it from there.
This review is based on the matinée performance of June 2. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs through July 15 at The Paul and Ione Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado. $19-$39. 619-437-0600.