The Toronto Theatre Review: Mirvish’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
I was really curious when I arrived at Mirvish’s Princess of Wales Theatre in Downtown Toronto to see a new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Wondering what I would think. My only other viewing of this show was over the pandemic when Andrew Lloyd Webber gave us 48 hours to stream his Joseph on his YouTube channel: The Shows Must Go On for free, and what I found out, was that I really enjoyed the show, saying with all my heart, “go, go, go, Joseph“! It was a beautifully filmed version, expanded and adapted from the 1992 production starring Donny Osmond, and I had a blast engaging with this musical. I had heard about this production, but had very little knowledge of. So arriving at the theatre just before Christmas to see the North American premiere of Laurence Connor’s dynamic new production, I was ready and willing to be completely entertained.
The production first played at The Palladium in London, UK back in 2019, and some say it has eyes focused on a Broadway transfer, but I’m not so sure that it’s quite ready for that. It certainly is an entertaining jaunt, presenting the musical, with lyrics by Tim Rice (Chess) and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar), in a colorful festive manner, simple and somewhat catchy, having immediate appeal and adolescent charm. The song cycle, ushering forth enthusiastically from different pop genres, follows the optimistic and joyful Joseph, played lovingly by a very appealing and impressively voiced Jac Yarrow (BBC’s “In My Skin“), straight from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. His voice soars, beautiful and gently throughout the show, and never fails to emotionally engage. Lucky for us, he’s the core of this sometimes overly simple and repetitive production, and holds it all together with his presence.
Back in 2020, the video clip of Osmond and the glorious Maria Friedman as the Narrator singing “Any Dream Will Do“ in that streamed version was what initially drew me into the show, and after watching them perform it a few years back, I felt that the filmed version was a must-see event. It’s a completely disarming and charming number, one that won me over quickly and easily. “If you think it, want it, dream it, than it’s real” sings the Narrator, lovingly portrayed in this new production by the talented Vanessa Fisher (NT’s Follies), and I was hooked just the same. I couldn’t help but feel that this “coat of many colors” which tells “the tale of a dreamer, like you“ might just be the ticket I needed to lift up my holiday spirit and take me on a similar enjoyable journey.
The leader of the pack in this joyful production, playfully directed by Laurence Connor (25th Anniversary Production of Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall), is the feisty Narrator, who fills more shoes and jackets in this reformation than one can imagine. She starts it all going with a bunch of playful children gathering around for story time. They crowd around Fisher, sitting up tall on colorful boxes as she pulls us and them in as she starts to sing about “a boy whose dreams came true.” It’s touching and sweet, and lovingly brings forth the anthem of the show, “Any Dream Will Do” which springs forward against a backdrop of colorful fabric sewn together to shed light on Joseph and his story of struggle and faith.
The large family photo of father Jacob, played by the fake-beard-atttached Fisher, isn’t as mutually loving as he should have been. His other sons, all eleven of them, aren’t as pleased with Joseph as their father is. And when Jacob gives his favorite son, Joseph, that cloak of many colors, their goat, and ire, is got, and bad things happen to good people when jealousy reigns. They shove and sell Joseph off, far away from his loving father and not-so-loving familial male siblings. And that is just the beginning of Joseph’s story and sorrows.
One spectacular musical number after another, choreographed with enthusiasm by Joann M. Hunter (Webber’s West End Cinderella), Joseph’s optimism never seems to fade, finding himself imprisoned but never, it seems, without hope. The pop song flourishes find their mark, time after time, once with a spectacular tap number with Fisher’s Narrator taking center stage. Fisher and Yarrow, both who first performed these roles in the original 2019 production of Joseph at The London Palladium really hold this piece together in their solid talented grip. They fill those gigantic shoes repeatedly, elevating the production higher than what it might deserve. Their voices sing true, and their energy is undeniable, taking the simple tale forward with a flourish of song and dance.
This was the first Lloyd Webber and Rice musical that was actually performed publicly (their first collaboration, The Likes of Us, was written in 1965, but not performed until 2005). And in its innocence, the beauty of this fun simple piece of musical theatre, and the lessons learned, are easily viewable and accessible, regardless of age. Locked up in a cell, caged (and looking pretty darn good), Yarrow’s Joseph finds the optimism to lovingly sing his sad pretty song beautifully. “Go, go, go, Joseph“, is what is he is cheered on by his fellow man, as he gently uses his ability to interpret dreams as his get-out-of-jail card, with or without his Dreamcoat. Good fortune comes a-knocking once again in the form of the Butler, joyfully played by by one of those young kids from the reading circle, and he rises up once again.
Then it’s a big time Welcome to Fabulous Egypt, when the sexy and commanding Tosh Wanogho Maud (West End’s The Drifters Girl; Dreamgirls) muscles his way in with that Elvis swagger and sizzle as the mighty Pharaoh. You better get down on your knees with joy. He’s experiencing a run of crazy dreams, and Joseph is asked to interpret as Maud delivers, quite gloriously, the “all shook up” song and big dance number that rocks forth the seven hip-swiveling pleasures. It’ll “flip your lid“, this number, particularly with Maud’s hot deliciousness and impressive visuals. The crazy dream’s meaning once again is the thing that saves Joseph, elevating his luck up and beyond once again, but this time to the heights of what that first dreamt at the beginning of this fun and sweet-natured musical tale was all about.
“We read the book, and you come out on top“, the show tells us and him once again, and thanks to the eleven brothers’ newly found honesty and honor when things look bad for their sweet angelic brother Benjamin, the tide is turned and all is forgiven. The show as a whole has only a few spoken lines of dialogue and is almost entirely sung-through with glee, like a silly Magic Flute without all that messy opera to alienate the kids. The family-friendly story is graced with familiar and satisfying themes anchored by catchy music and lovely performances. First presented in 1968 as a 15-minute “pop cantata” at Colet Court School in London and recorded in an expanded form by Decca Records in 1969, the musical was only embraced after the success of Jesus Christ Superstar, the next Webber and Rice conceptual biblical piece. And the rest is theatrical history.
Only then was Joseph given the chance to secure its place through a number of staged amateur productions in the US starting in 1970. In 1972, it was given a professional veneer as a 35-minute musical at the Edinburgh International Festival by the Young Vic Theatre Company, directed by Frank Dunlop, paired with another, more talk heavy biblical tale. And even as it was undergoing major modifications and expansions, the musical premiered in the West End. Finally, Joseph was presented in its modern longer form at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester several times through 1978, pretty much never looking back. The musical was brought over to Broadway in 1982, garnering several major award nominations, just like it did every time it has been revived in the West End, which is many.
The show as a whole doesn’t actually seem ready to return to the New York City. It feels somewhat old and stereotypical even in its new and fresh styling. It resembles more a pared-down touring show rather than a fully fleshed-out modernized production that could capture the hearts of Broadway. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, but some work needs to be done to establish it more, and maybe get rid of some stereotypical representations. The set and costumes are dutifully playful, colorful, and somewhat non-progressively generic, designed by Morgan Large (Shaftesbury Theatre’s Flashdance), with a somewhat solid sound by Gareth Owen (Broadway/West End’s Come From Away), and a pretty spectacular lighting design by Ben Cracknell (Garrick’s The Drifters Girl). It carries a simple formula, that climaxes pretty spectacularly with the “Song of the King” Vegas number in Act Two. It repeatedly (maybe one too many times) rocks out with large gold statues playing electric guitars as female backup singers strike a Vegas showgirl pose in gold lame. I only wish I could hear and understand the lyrics better during all of this, and maybe a few other numbers.
Alongside the talented crew of actors playing numerous parts, dancing their feet off throughout, the idea of having the young children at the storytelling play some of Jacob’s sons and some other adult characters does the piece good, engaging us on that youthful level that lovingly works with the overall message and theme. With musical supervising and conducting done by John Rigby (London’s School of Rock), the orchestrations of John Cameron (Les Misérables; 1979-2006) fill the space with ease. The show as a whole delivers the differing song styles strong and true, finding its way to the end of the tale joyfully. This production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat keeps on trucking forward, unapologetically with an optimism that is woven neatly into the story. In closing, it flies through a mega-mix of basically the whole show and every number once again, urging the crowd to jump to their feet and dance along with the cast. The moment feels a bit forced (or is that just me?), and overly long and repetitive, but one can’t help being charmed by the talent and their enthusiasm for the piece. It’s a pure, simple pleasure, matching the popcorn sold at intermission and festive energy that fills the theatre. It’s not quite Broadway ready yet, but it also doesn’t feel too far away from the required upgrade for it to be a success. With a bit more tweaking, this Joseph is a go, go, go.