Donald Munro

A so-so ‘Joseph’ wants to be fresh but can’t quite manage

JC McCann in the title role of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’
JC McCann in the title role of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’ Special to The Bee

Before I get grumpy about the show, score one for the national tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”: I’ve never laughed so much and been as entranced with the second-act number “Those Canaan Days.”

Peter Surace, as Simeon – one of Joseph’s brothers who helped sell him into slavery and is now starving to death – belts out the lead part with a saucy mix of satirical self-awareness, deft comic timing and soaring vocals. An extended precision choreographed bit involves a dinner table, bunch of bowls and a sit-down chorus line in a cross between “Food, Glorious Food” from “Oliver” and “Our Favorite Son” from “The Will Rogers Follies.” Innovatively staged, smoothly performed: It’s wonderful.

Best of all, the number is a sort of meta-”Joseph” moment, poking fun at the loooong pauses in the song, a comic highlight in the show as long as I can remember. Director Andy Blankenbuehler camps it up so much that the song serves as a wry commentary on the very goofiness of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice endeavor.

Still, I have to question a “Joseph” production in which “Those Canaan Days” turns out to be the big show-stopper.

Something feels out of balance with this non-Equity production, which finishes up its Fresno run with a second performance Wednesday night at the Saroyan Theatre.

It wants to feel fresh and updated from the many “Josephs” that have come before it, complete with a modern prologue and some slick choreography from Blankenbuehler (who choreographed the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton”). And I can see why. As this spare little musical grew from school pageant to Broadway behemoth, successive productions of “Joseph” over the years have tried to top each other in over-the-top Las Vegas glitz. The show became so big and flashy that the sweet, human-level Old Testament story it so lovingly tweaks nearly became crushed beneath it all.

Yet this “Joseph,” while scaling back a lot of the spectacle, doesn’t offer a distinct vision of its own. It hits some high points, such as “Canaan Days,” yet fails to offer other giddy high points the material demands from such crucial moments as the first-act finale “Go, Go, Go Joseph” – and especially the Pharaoh’s big number. The production and costume design is a mish-mash, unsure of whether it wants to be shabby desert chic or casino gaudy.

(As for the coat of the title: It’s the ugliest one I’ve seen yet in a “Joseph” production; it looks as if it were put together by a bunch of ladies in a quilting bee who took mind-enhancing drugs and then raided Pinterest for inspiration.)

The production looks a little on the cheap side, especially in a wincing moment just after the prologue when a sagging, heavy curtain is winched haltingly upwards to provide a background for Daniel Brodie’s impressive video and projection design. I think I get the concept – it’s almost like watching a show in a desert tent. But why did I keep thinking it looked like the backdrop for a Banana Republic company party?

And while the choreography is one of the best things about the production, it isn’t enough to counter its overall wobbly feel.

JC McCann is a likable Joseph but doesn’t hit that sweet spot of vulnerability in “Close Every Door.” Laura Helm, as the Narrator, offers a strong spark to the show, though she had some problems with pitch, especially in “Pharaoh’s Story.” Joe Ventricelli doesn’t hit many comic buttons as the Pharaoh. Marc Ciemiewicz is amusing as Potiphar.

To me, the standout performers are all 11 brothers. They have a nice sense of ensemble and chemistry. Jacob’s sons might be starving in “Those Canaan Days,” but they’re sure having a fun time doing it. And with “Joseph,” that counts for a lot.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Theater review