Arts & Culture » Theater

Sugar Coated: The Muny spins Joseph light as air and oh, so sweet



How do you feel about cotton candy? Despite its lack of sustenance, some people delight in the sweet taste of spun sugar disintegrating in the back of the throat. Others feel that to eat spun sugar is equivalent to eating air. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the ebullient musical by two then-novice songwriters named Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is the theater equivalent of cotton candy. Your response to this week's energetic Muny staging likely will be determined by your affinity for non-nutritious confections.

Webber's licensing company, the Really Useful Group, reports that as of four years ago there had been more than 20,000 amateur productions of Joseph. That doesn't count the four previous outings at the Muny or the Donny Osmond tours. The operative word here is "amateur." Surely the reason for Joseph's popularity with amateur groups is because (like the aforementioned cotton candy) there's nothing here. The show, which began in 1968 as a cantata, is simply a collection of songs of various styles — country, rock, even something Edith Piaf might have warbled in Paris. (At the Muny, a calypso ditty has been replaced by gospel.) With no specific style or tone to adhere to, Joseph can get away with anything. And indeed, one of the measures of the current Muny staging, which was directed and choreographed by Lara Teeter, is that this is a professional rendition that strives to evoke the innocence of amateurism. The stage is awash with fresh young faces; the evening never feels too slick.

The narrative is drawn from the chronicle of Joseph in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. (Not all of Joseph's story, happily, because he did live to be 110.) The moment you arrive at your seat and see the Gateway Arch towering over the Muny stage, you might think to yourself, "Gee, Toto, we're not in Egypt anymore." Yet once the plot kicks in, we do find ourselves in the land of the Pharoahs. One of this week's conceits is that wardrobe can pivot back and forth between Cardinals baseball jerseys and ancient garb; the same with locales. And why not? Nobody objects when the settings for Shakespeare's plays get arbitrarily altered. Joseph is certainly elastic enough to withstand some tampering.

Because Joseph requires no specific style of its own, the Muny staging borrows from Godspell, Pippin, even Jersey Boys — though at times the production tries so hard to be clever that it ceases to be amusing. And there are the occasional odd choices. At the end of Act One, for instance, late in the jubilant "Go, Go, Go Joseph" number, Joseph and the Narrator must race from downstage center to the top of an upstage bridge. Their mad dash is covered by an odd roar that sounds as if the Sphinx is throwing up. What's that all about? And late in Act Two, who's the guy with the cardboard box on his head? (There is — or at least should be — a distinction between amateurism and anarchy.) But no matter how far awry the show sometimes strays, it always rights itself and proceeds along its cheerfully naïve way.

Justin Guarini makes for an appealing Joseph (albeit a Joseph who might derive more satisfaction from playing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls). But the Narrator drives the story forward. Here, too, the measure of any Narrator is this: Would you like to see her in a real musical? For Mamie Parris, that answer is a resounding yes. She charms with a golden smile and a brassy voice.

Ultimately, Joseph is an entertainment that wears its heart (if not its head) on its brightly colored sleeve. You can only imagine the fun that those two irreverent British college kids, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had writing it; all these decades later, fun remains the top priority in Forest Park. And here's maybe the most amazing part of all: Even with a curtain call that lasts nearly ten minutes, Joseph's running time is less than two hours. Like cotton candy, it's easy to swallow. 

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