Elvis is everywhere. And he's no longer satisfied with appearances in dishwater soap bubbles or sneaking into the background of your snapshots. He's back on stage at the Fine Arts Center, and back in the Bible ... where he belongs?
Past productions have always made Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat seem like a racy musical, pushing a few boundaries with an '80s-era perspective on the Broadway musical as the gospel according to Lord Lloyd Webber. What do you expect of a show irreverent enough to cast the King as Pharaoh, a cowpoke as Levi, and a dreadlocked Rastafarian as Simeon? See it in Colorado Springs, however, and there's no escaping it: This is a Bible story through and through.
Director Don Bill sets this Joseph apart at the opening curtain when he introduces a "choir" of eight young children used effectively throughout the play as a Greek chorus. In the Fine Arts Center Repertory Theatre production, the kids choir become the "audience" for the play. The wink-wink-nudge-nudge maturity of the story is passed over and we in the seats feel like it's visiting day at a very hip Sunday school.
CoCo Sansoni makes the kind of splash that would part the seas in her homecoming performance to Colorado Springs after spending the last seven years in New York City. Sansoni's Narrator instantly elevates the production with her powerful vocals and her subtly ironic narration, bringing the audience into the inner world of her stories.
Joseph is another story altogether. The role is a uniquely passive lead role, the center of a whirlwind of activity, but always the victim of others' actions. Tim Rice's lyrics give him his primary direction early on in "Joseph's Coat," stating that "I look handsome, I look smart. I am a walking work of art." Steve Nielsen is never compelled to go beyond that characterization, and Joseph's own actions are never fully relevant until the play's final scenes. The role is often seen as fair game for non-actors, and although Nielsen's singing voice keeps the part on higher ground, his acting adds nothing to the cardboard cutout school of acting the part seems to call for.
The constant blending of genres and styles sets the scene for plenty of show-stealing chorus numbers, including Jeff Gatz's cowboy turn on "One More Angel in Heaven," Ted Cox's Elvis/Pharaoh impersonation in "Song of the King," and Rob Geers' Rasta rendition of "Benjamin Calypso."
Among Joseph's challenges is its wall-to-wall choreography. The chorus is on stage for about 3/4 of the show's numbers, and they are constantly transforming, starting out in "Jacob and Sons" in blue jeans and Converse All-Stars. As the play progresses, they morph into cowboy singers, walk-like-an-Egyptian dancers, cell block go-goers, Elvis backer-uppers, calypso singers, and Parisian beat artistes. The choreography is never dazzling, but it is constant and consistent, and Don Bill manages to keep his audience consumed with an always active and entertaining stage presence.
The play can live and die on its bonanza of stylistic accoutrements, and Robin Woods Sumners' costumes and Nancy Himes' props create a world of color and texture, enabling the cast to quickly step in and out of the wide-ranging styles the show's music leads them through. When the title character is a coat of many colors, it's a costumer's delight to chronicle the fashion crimes of ancient Egypt.
The stunning visual quality makes up for some uneven auditory issues. Joseph, the Narrator, and various soloists benefit from some powerful and clean microphones, but the balance between the leads and the chorus is too far out of kilter. Once your ears adapt to the alarming loudness of the leads, the unamplified chorus hardly registers, and if you couldn't see their lips moving you'd be hard-pressed to understand their function.
Technicalities notwithstanding, Joseph makes for an excellent family outing. The Repertory Theatre has upped the ante once again, filling the stage with first-rate musical entertainment that delivers on any promise.
The striking colors and textures are reminiscent of Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Lovely work.