By Colin Douglas
As the 2019 holiday season and the year wind down, what better way to celebrate than this joyous, unabashed, sometimes poignant musical comedy? It’s impossible to sit still while experiencing Music Theater Works’ production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
It’s so gorgeously sung, energetically danced and comically enacted that it will stay with audiences long after the final bows. This is a winning show, particularly appropriate for the entire family. It even features a choir of children who add their sweet voices to the chorus, forever encouraging Joseph and the rest of the company to “Go, go, go, go!”
Joseph was originally written as a 15-minute pop cantata in 1968 for a boys’ school in London. However, with the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End hit musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, producers urged the composer and lyricist Tim Rice to flesh out their musical skit to create another full-length Bible-based musical. Religious entertainments were in vogue at that time, with the popularity of Webber’s Superstar and Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell. Eventually Webber and Rice’s extended version of Dreamcoat opened in the West End in 1973 with a mostly male cast. Its popularity was unmatched, and by 1982 it had crossed the Atlantic to become a huge Broadway hit. Soon this catchy sung-through pop-rock musical was not only touring the country, it was playing everywhere in the world. It wasn’t long until every regional, community and educational theatre was presenting their own production and the show’s popularity has continued ever since.
This is Director Rudy Hogenmiller’s final production before he retires from Music Theater Works as artistic director. His wonderfully whimsical production typifies the talent and creativity that this veteran theatre artist has been known for over the past years. Hogenmiller’s latest production features a talented cast, all gifted with strong vocal and dance skills, which are the highlights of this production. Hogenmiller has found the very finest triple threats to play both the leading roles, as well as the large company of supporting players. Webber’s delightfully catchy songs and musical numbers fill a two-hour running time (with intermission), and are fun and infectious, whether this is a theatergoer’s first visit to the Land of Canaan or, like me, his 20th. Assisted by gifted Musical Director Linda Madonia, playing keyboard and conducting her talented 15-member pit orchestra, this show has never sounded better. Brilliant Choreographer Clayton Cross has created a variety of delightfully athletic moves and dance steps that keep his cast in perpetual motion. Cross also plays Benjamin, the youngest of Joseph’s brothers, which he does with contagious spunk and spirit.
In the leading role of the Narrator, lithe and lovely Samantha Behen absolutely owns the show. She opens the play in the subtle guise of a storyteller, taking stage with perfect poise and promise. As the tempos increase, the actress injects her role with panache and pizzazz, leading the audience on a musical journey through this familiar Bible story. The role showcases Behen’s talents, with several tender, pop ballads and plenty of belting vocal acrobatics, all of which she delivers with finesse. The winsdome Behen brings perfect pitch and precise enunciation to her role. Hopefully this is just the first of many leading roles for this talented young actress.
In the title role of Joseph, handsome, affable Brian Acker is equally terrific. Sweetly likable, Acker once again displays the vocal strength and charm that made his performance in MTW’s past production of Damn Yankees so outstanding. Overflowing with charisma and a strong stage presence, Acker is a natural for this role. The actor sounds great, dances beautifully and looks fantastic in Robert Kuhn’s perfect period costumes, especially his spectacular coat of many colors. In fact, all of Kuhn’s creations are colorful, a little sexy and with a playful, anachronistic quality.
Recently earning well-deserved accolades for his portrayal of Leo Bloom in BoHo Theatre’s Big Fish, dashing Tommy Thurston rocks the stage as a swivel-hipped, bouffant-haired Elvis Presley-like Pharaoh. Thurston brings humor and powerful vocals to the Egyptian monarch who eventually gives Joseph an opportunity for success. John Cardone is wonderful in two very different roles. He’s a solid singer and makes a funny, sometimes touching Jacob, the elder of the Israel tribe. But where he really shines is as the vain and bombastic billionaire slave-owner, Potiphar. Joseph’s 11 brothers each demonstrate incredible comic, choreographic and vocal talents that allow them to shine in every scene. Trenton Baker is especially delightful as Reuben, leading the company in “One More Angel in Heaven.” Leon Evans steals the spotlight with his Caribbean-inspired “Benjamin Calypso.” And, along with Jordan Beyeler’s sensual Apache Dancer, the entire bevy of brothers bring down the house with their tongue-in-cheek French bistro sound of “Those Canaan Days.”
This is one joyous, colorful musical comedy that theatergoers won’t want to miss. Cross’ supremely executed choreography builds the show to a frenzy, offering an energetic reprise of the musical’s best songs in the “Joseph Megamix.” As each actor takes a bow, this 10-minute encore firmly drives the catchy Webber score into the audience’s heads, never to fade away. The flashy electro-pop and hip hop dance moves are generously peppered with acrobatics, classical ballet moves and country/western choreography.
Hogenmiller’s wise direction of this talented cast is skillfully executed. Each song and every move brims with passion, confidence and beauty, making this production as much fun as a holiday stocking filled with surprises. And, as the production sounds its final chords, this Joseph wisely reminds every single one of us that, in life, “Any Dream Will Do.”
Music Theater Works presents “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” through December 31 at Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson Street, Evanston, IL. More information and tickets are available here.