Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a crowd-pleaser

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book by Tim Rice. Directed by Laurence Connor. Until Feb. 18 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W. mirvish.com, 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333

Lavishly staged, exuberantly choreographed, and in some ways dated, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” has burst into Toronto for a Mirvish-presented holiday season run.

Those Millennial-aged and older will likely recall the much-talked-about 1992 Toronto production starring Donny Osmond. This is the North American premiere of Laurence Connor’s staging which first played at the Palladium in London, UK in 2019 and is said to be eyeing Broadway.

Connor’s production takes the show’s simple, hooky premise — a song cycle in different pop genres retelling the Biblical story of Joseph — as an opportunity for one spectacular musical number after another, some of which included extended, highly entertaining dance sequences choreographed by Joann M. Hunter.

The staging emphasizes the way the material is an exercise in make-believe. It starts with the Narrator (Vanessa Fisher) singing to a group of adorable, locally cast kids about “a boy whose dreams came true.” That boy is Joseph, played by adult actor Jac Yarrow; he further draws the children and the audience into the story with the anthem “Any Dream will Do.”

Joseph’s story then blossoms into life, led by the Narrator who helps the children dress the stage by clipping colourful swathes of fabric into a beautiful backdrop against a golden sky. Unpopular with his brothers because their father Jacob favours him, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt but ends up succeeding wildly thanks to his capacity to interpret dreams.

Already a significant role, the Narrator in this production is framed as the creative force controlling all the action, as when she puts on a fake beard to play Jacob and pulls it down to offer commentary as the Narrator, all within a few bars of a song.

Fisher’s Narrator plays further cameos in addition to singing in most of the numbers and fully participating in the choreography (including a winning Act 1 tap number). It’s a gigantic role and Fisher triple-threats it spectacularly, more than earning her star bow at the end of the evening.

At the top of the show, the children wear contemporary clothes, and this and other choices, including hip-hop and club moves in the production numbers, pop flourishes in many of the vocal performances, and the Narrator’s use of a cellphone to take selfies, places the action very much in the here-and-now.

The material shows its age, however, in its use of Orientalist musical and character tropes in its representation of Egypt, and the production could do more to resist or offset this. While having the children play Jacob’s younger sons and some adult characters adds to the message that this is all a game, it also enlists them in presenting racialized stereotypes of the Arab world. That this wasn’t much commented on in U.K. reviews of this production reveals a difference in sensibilities that could hamper the show’s success this side of the pond.

While it starts relatively simply, design by Morgan Large (set and costumes) and Ben Cracknell (lights) gets progressively blingier as the show continues, climaxing in the massive Act II production number “Song of the King” in which Tosh Wanogho-Maud as the Pharoah channels Elvis, backed up by belly-dancing female backup singers in gold lame bras and anthropomorphic, animatronic gold statues playing electric guitars.

It’s a spectacle worthy of Vegas at its most excessive, and Wanogho-Maud gives the evening’s most impressive vocal performance and serves hip thrusts which made me question the show’s implicit G rating. It’s a shame that the use of a hand mic muffles some of the Pharoah’s best lyrics in this otherwise show-stopping number.

Yarrow, hand-picked by Lloyd Webber to play the title role, perfectly epitomizes the production’s larger-than-life aesthetic. He’s so boyishly handsome and physically buffed that he seems to come out of a superhero comic book and plays up the character’s initial grating arrogance. This beautifully sets up the revelation of Yarrow’s impressive capacity to deliver strong emotion through song in “Close Every Door.” The moodiness of this prison-set scene is amplified by Large’s set of a massive cell grate and Cracknell’s lights.

Musical supervisor and conductor John Rigby’s orchestra sounds great and moves ably through the score’s multiple song styles, from country and western (“One More Angel in Heaven”) to overblown French chanson (“Those Canaan Days”) to Caribbean (“Benjamin Calypso”). This is another aspect of the show that viewed through a contemporary lens risks appropriation, but the production takes a damn-the-torpedoes approach and leans into the styles, even adding a bonus dance sequence to “Those Canaan Days.” The supporting cast shine brightly in these genre songs and extended dance numbers.

The children absolutely hold their own and on opening night, Evelyn Fu and Charlie Zeltzer shone in their solo moments in the Act I closer “Go, Go, Go Joseph,” and Jayd Deroché sang with impressive clarity and conviction in “Benjamin Calypso.”

The show ends with a speed-through megamix of all the big musical numbers and on opening night had the audience on its feet and bopping along, very young children and more senior figures alike. This is a crowd-pleaser that could do well on Broadway, particularly if concerns about some of its representations are addressed on its journey there.

Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre reviewer. Follow her on twitter @KarenFricker2

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book by Tim Rice. Directed by Laurence Connor. Until Feb. 18 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W. mirvish.com, 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333

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