"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," when done well, is a ridiculously colorful, humorous and melodic spectacular that retells the biblical story of Joseph as a gleeful pop-rock opera. Happily, Broadway By the Bay's current production fits the bill to perfection. It's a treat for the ears, eyes and heart.
I know there are some who proclaim not to enjoy the work of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. If that describes you, avert your eyes. I, however, am hard-pressed to think of any piece of music more delightfully infectious than Lloyd Webber's "Joseph" score. From top to bottom, its ear-worm melodies lend themselves to repeat singing, with clever recurring motifs, counterpoint and harmony. Who among us is immune to the soaring melody line that spans an entire major chord in "Pharaoh's Dream," for instance? What about Rice's lyrics that rhyme when sung with a British accent, such as "pajamas/farmers"? Certainly not I.
In the BBB version, Joseph opts to pronounce "pajamas" with a short a sound, ruining the Anglophile rhyme. That's pretty much my only complaint about this production, though, which nails both the goofy comedy and beautiful music and offers a gorgeous rainbow of costumes and lighting to boot.
Directed by Stephanie Maysonave, who has a background in improv comedy, the production tells of how, in ancient Canaan, shepherd/patriarch Jacob (Chris Fernandez) favors golden boy Joseph (Matt Ono) above all his other 11 sons. They're annoyed when dad presents him with a fancy coat of many colors but they're furious when Joseph blithely recounts his dreams, which seem to clairvoyantly reinforce his familial superiority. "The dreamer has to go," they declare, and soon they're selling him into Egyptian slavery while telling Jacob he was killed by a wild goat. Though his journey takes him from slavery to prison, Joseph remains steadfast and hopeful, and eventually his skills at dream interpretation lead him to a plum position in the court of the Pharaoh (Manuel Caneri). Joseph is able to help save Egypt from famine, while back in Canaan, his family faces starvation. They travel to Egypt to beg for help, unaware that they're groveling at the feet of their long-lost brother. Once Joseph sees that his brothers have become better people in the years since they, you know, left him for dead, he forgives them. A family reunion/disco dance party ensues.
"Joseph" was originally composed as a short "pop cantata" for students back in 1968. Though over the years it's been expanded into a full-length production, with musical arrangements cheesed up as it got further from its swingin' London roots, it remains almost entirely sung (save for a few spoken words) and moves along extremely briskly. The songs are pastiche in a variety of styles, including silly takes on country-western, French ballad, calypso and Elvis Presley tunes.
Led by vocal director Daniel Lloyd Pias and choreographer Christina Lazo, the large cast (which includes a group of local children) sings and moves wonderfully. Maysonave makes sure to milk the comedic moments at every opportunity. And though it is very funny, she makes sure to allow for the poignant moments, too, such as setting the lovely "Close Every Door to Me" with Joseph and the youth chorus behind chain-link fences, a nod to the current U.S. border crisis.
Ono makes a great Joseph, with the right mix of arrogance, innocence and charm. Chelsey Ristaino provides warm exuberance and powerful vocals as the Narrator and Caneri slays as the strutting rock star Pharoah. The rest of the cast is equally strong, from the disgruntled brothers to the extremely hardworking ensemble, who are part of nearly every scene. The whole team must have Red Bull running through their veins to be able to keep the energy and performance levels so high. Or maybe the show is just that much fun to be part of.
BBB productions are typically of fine visual quality and this one is no exception. Costume designer Bethany Deal delivers an eye-popping array of colorful and glittery costumes (deep red and gold are particularly featured) and lighting designer Eric Johnson goes all out.
The end result is a musical that's somehow family-friendly and heartwarming despite its themes of slavery, sexual harassment, fratricide and more, its wholesome irreverence making it suitable for audiences of both the religious and secular variety.
At a talk-back on opening weekend, a member of the audience asked the cast to say what they did for "day jobs." The responses ran the gamut from assistant district attorney to public-library assistant, tech worker, nursing student and teachers. It's a good time to remember that these folks are committing a huge chunk of their free time to community theater out of passion and love. In "Joseph," that passion -- and their immense talent -- shines through. As a production, it's a dream come true.
What: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
Where: Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Saturdays and Sundays through March 31; performance times vary.