By Carolyn Hayes
With decades of roaring success under its belt and name recognition aplenty, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" (lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Weber) is an instant draw. In the current production at The Encore Musical Theatre Company, director Barbara F. Cullen knows better than to mess with success, honoring the pizzazz of the show's broad, splashy rainbow of production numbers but in smaller-than-usual packaging.
The musical concerns the Biblical story of Joseph (Kevin Rose) and his statement favorite-son coat, and his penchant for dream interpretation, and his envious, scheming brothers, and his perseverance and eventual triumph after everything is taken away. Sung through in a cascade of numbers with scant dialogue, the bullet-point version of the story is notable for its thematic breadth, leaping from style to style with every plot development. Impressively, whatever spectacle Cullen and company produce is achieved despite reduced scale. Enclosed on a relatively intimate stage, the cast is stripped back to the fewest bodies possible (totaling 16 main cast plus a half-dozen children, in three rotating kids' choruses), and the trimmed-down content and music is evidenced only by the lightning-fast running time. What's left is an explosion of genres and well-known songs that cleanly hurdle the afterthought of a story.
Cullen doesn't muddy the already rushing waters with unnecessary complexity and aims straight for the simplest interpretation in every case, from cowpokes to the Jazz Age to a rowdy cheering section, as appropriate. The design matches pace with the rampant thematic overhauls, briskly setting and striking rumbling cutout accouterments on Toni Auletti's simply aligned but intricately painted set. Costumes by Sharon Larkey Urick are so varied – and rapidly swapped out – as to require stealthy quick-change work right onstage, and all along, the jangling accompaniment (conducted by music director Jonathan Sills) and genre-compliant choreography (also by Cullen) keeps right in step.
Notably, the production's boldest choice is also one of its shakiest, reimagining the narrator role as a trio of enthusiastic teen girls (Megan Casey, Madison Deadman, Bryana Dorfman). The collective narrators' saccharine sounds hit high points when in harmony, but the role's wide vocal range becomes a problem, and individual voices don't always follow through with the necessary strength. In point of fact, "better together than apart" proves endemic of much of the singing throughout the show. It's one symptom of an uncertain accord between group and individual focus, with a litter of handheld and body mics amplifying some performers while other solos are all but drowned out, and a lighting scheme (by Daniel Walker) that relies too much on inelegant spotlight work. The staging also befalls similar missteps, sometimes using the children as set dressing or hustling through the spaces between marvels; it's a chaos that contrasts rather than complements the organized chaos of on-point ensemble numbers.
Of course, there are memorable individual turns as well, chief among them the preternaturally sunny Rose. His likable Joseph is utterly guileless, but it's his spellbinding voice that will win over the viewer. Elsewhere, there's skill and physical comedy both in Sebastian Gerstner's Pharaoh and his hunka-hunka hip action. However, the band of brothers is undoubtedly this production's secret weapon, a humorous ensemble whose every tart line of song radiates with bitter taste. Their playfulness and attention to the often cheeky lyrics (in particular featured soloists Peter Crist and Jon-Erik Goldberg) gives the show a humorous bent that's simply more dynamic than the hefty earnestness of the main saga.
With its cool hour-and-a-half race to the finish combined with story simplicity and emphasis on visual pop, this "Joseph" makes for a dazzling – if dizzying – display, with particular appeal for the younger set. The production delivers on the promise of the popular, crowd-pleasing musical that it is; it makes no promises of groundbreaking artistry, but expediently delivers a concentrated blast of energetic entertainment.
'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat'
The Encore Musical Theatre Company, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through March 3. 1 hour, 25 minutes (with intermission). $18. 734-268-6200. http://www.TheEncoreTheatre.org