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Costumed drama

MCT's Dreamcoat hangs on enthusiasm

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Director Joe Martinez notes in the program of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that his MCT production is “not going to hit you over the head with a moral issue.” He needn’t have worried. Although the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber collaboration is based on the Bible story, it has about as much moral presence as an episode of The Donny and Marie Show. This production is clean, perky and fun, a happy ride from one gag to another, and executed efficiently, it guarantees a good time.

The production indeed contains “something for everyone”: A chorus of middle-schoolers takes the stage at the opening and reappears throughout, showcasing some very pretty singing. Dance numbers under Lynda Foster’s able direction balloon and swell, usually performed by large ensembles. Susan Marquand has designed dozens and dozens of costumes spanning millennia—from Joseph’s handcuffs and simple white skirt to ’60s go-go dancing finery. The actors work together in happy unison, and the show isn’t overly long (an important detail for a “family” show).

Des Rooney has created a simple but effective design allowing Martinez to people the stage in ascending layers, big blocks serving as stairs and ledges. He is responsible for the most magic of the evening’s moments, a triptych wall of prison bars that grows swiftly up from beneath the stage floor when Potiphar throws Joseph in jail.

In Joseph we can hear the melodies and musical themes that Webber later stitched from show to show—in Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Phantom of the Opera. Here is also the genesis of the theme of narcissistic grandeur that will turn up so often in Rice and Webber’s work. They stuff their songs so full of biblical narrative they often seem about to burst, and many lyrics are truly inane in their exposition and simple rhymes, their dull vernacular, their clockwork beat.

Joseph relies heavily on a gimmick: shifting musical styles from number to number. The country twang of “One More Angel in Heaven” changes to the ’60s-style “Go Go Go Joseph.” “Pharaoh Story” is pure MTV, and “Those Canaan Days” parodies the French boulevardier style. There’s even a calypso number. Ours is not to question the intentions of Webber and Rice, but if the creators did have something in mind, they fail to make it suitably clear why they set the show up this way. Just for kicks, perhaps. On that score, this is a winning Joseph, unimpeachable for fun, silliness and a load of hummable tunes.

But the changing styles rob Joseph of a fluid narrative, drawing attention instead to their parody, each set piece its own point, rather than the pieces contributing to a whole. Martinez knows his styles well, and has no trouble exploiting them. He and musical director David Cody, who must take equal credit for a production with hardly a line of spoken dialogue, guarantee that each number glitters with flair and spark. But what the show offers in showcase numbers, and in so many changes in costume, in so many chronological shifts, it lacks in one single element to pull everything together.

This is where the Narrator comes in—a role charged with uniting and cohering the show’s different eras, ages and styles. Martinez splits the role, which is usually—though not always—sung by a woman, between Leah Meloy and Michael Lowney. Lowney and Meloy, both teenagers, have evident talent and good voices, but in their youth and theatrical inexperience they are without the authority the roles demand, and seem unaware of the responsibility they shoulder. Sometimes, when theirs should be the voices to follow, the actors seem lost in the shuffle of the dense cast, which contributes to a muddy feeling of too much going on and no sense of where to look.

Hunter Townsend plays Joseph as a charming, spoiled child, the kind of guy your mother warned you about. He’s pleased with himself and somewhat irresistible—blond, buff, nearly naked—and suitably at home in his pleasing voice. This gives credence to his forgivable arrogance as a seer, an interpreter of dreams. The band of 11 brothers puts lots of energy into the men’s chorus, and Tim Luoma performs with comic exaggeration as a Michael Jacksonesque Pharaoh in the show-stopping opener to Act 2. The rest of the company is lively and vivacious.

Joseph ends with a medley of sorts, a close to the show that keeps reopening it, dragging the actors back out yet again for another romp across the stage, or along the Rooney-designed walkway projecting in a half-circle from the front of the stage. This moment is emblematic of the whole show: a busy, heavily peopled to-and-fro that challenges the audience to center its attention. On opening night, the cast looked like it might buckle beneath the distractions, but the murky, rattled activity of the first numbers quickly shifted, and the energy of the players came together and continued to rise throughout the performance. This passionate energy proves Joseph’s saving grace.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs through Sunday at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. All seats/performances reserved. Call 728-PLAY for tickets.

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