IT'S irredeemably cheesy and more camp than a row of tents, with a standard-issue story and no tempestuous, crashing love affair to swoon over. So why does one leave Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat floating on a rainbow-hued cloud and hunting around for the nearest dance floor?
Its allure is unfathomable, because by any objective analysis it’s not a terribly good musical, especially by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice standards. It’s so fluffy and insubstantial, it almost floats away.
But because Joseph was one of their very first works — it was conceived in the late 1960s, predating the more popular Jesus Christ Superstar — the pair that would go on to become a formidable force in global musical theatre perhaps didn’t yet feel the pressure to create a work of high art. They could just let loose and have fun — with a Bible story, nogal.
And fun is what the audience has in spades throughout this curious cock-eyed concoction of a musical, which merrily skips between music genres with gay abandon (yes, it is deliciously camp). Mushed into the heady mix is everything from reggae-licious calypso and redneck hoe-down country ’n western to mock-mournful French chanson and rock ’n roll fit for a king — or, to be more precise, The King.
South Africans first saw Joseph in the 1970s, featuring the dream trio of Richard Loring, Alvon Collison and Bruce Millar. In the latest production of Joseph by Pieter Toerien, enjoying brisk custom at his Montecasino Theatre in Fourways, the company and creative team have cooked up a rollicking escapist frolic, with spritzes of added day-glo for good measure.
It’s directed with a deceptively feather-light touch by Paul Warwick Griffin, one of the country’s most successful musical theatre exports, who has served as associate director on West End productions of Ghost — The Musical and Waiting for Godot (with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart). Griffin is known locally for working wonders with “bonsai” musicals that are tailored for smaller stages yet have an enormous impact.
He makes the pulse-racing kaleidoscope of Joseph look effortless, but there’s a lot that goes into assembling a musical that’s almost completely sung, with no spoken dialogue.
The role of Joseph is usually played by a pop star or matinee idol. David Cassidy, Jason Donovan, Donny Osmond, Gareth Gates and a succession of X Factor wannabes have all had a shot at being the favoured son of the biblical patriarch Jacob. In SA, Toerien has bucked against tradition and cast the same performer, Earl Gregory, as Joseph not once, but twice, 12 years apart.
The first time, Gregory was a fresh-faced upstart, straight out of the Tshwane University of Technology’s illustrious musical theatre programme. Joseph was his professional debut, and the dynamic young “triple threat” was a revelation.
More than a decade later, Gregory has the added seasoning of experience; his haunting, pensive rendition of “Close Every Door” is even more impressive than the more popular (and poppy) “Any Dream Will Do”.
Yes, there is a reality talent show star on the stage, but it’s a worthy casting. Playing the Narrator is Bianca le Grange, one of the very first cohort of SA Idols, who has gone on to scale incredible heights in local musical theatre, winning a Naledi Theatre Award for her role in David Kramer’s Blood Brothers.
But often it’s the over-the-top cameo roles that steal the show, and in this case it’s the multi-awarded Jonathan Roxmouth whooping it up as the elaborately coiffed rock ’n roll Pharaoh.
We are more accustomed to seeing him in “serious” roles — from disfigured homicidal genius in Phantom of the Opera to tortured homicidal barber in Sweeney Todd, but here Roxmouth channels his inner Elvis Presley to produce a comedy performance awash with hubba-hubba swagger that leaves audiences all shook up. It’s a complete riot. Just a pity the sound wasn’t up to scratch on the night I attended.
What? The plot? It’s almost incidental: Joseph’s 11 brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. There, he’s thrown in jail when Potiphar’s slutty wife takes a fancy to him, until his gift for interpreting dreams lands him a plum job as Pharoah’s number two. But when Joseph’s brothers come to grovel for food, the tables are turned.
It’s undeniably tongue in cheek, but you could hardly call it blasphemous. Joseph is just a simple story about pride, vanity, jealousy and redemption told in a bodaciously colourful, vibey and entertaining way, culminating in a megamix finale that gets the stage pumping and the joint jumping. Who needs a rave or a trance party when you can trip (the light fantastic) on groovy retro musical theatre?
• Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is showing at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg until August 7, and transfers to the Theatre on the Bay in Camps Bay from August 12