Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – A surprising new life for an old classic dream.
It’s hard to think of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and not conjure up images of Jason Donovan, cheesy pop songs, and a questionable biblical link. It may not be quite at the number 1 spot, but it certainly feels like the longest running musical ever. With the sheer number of schools producing this show (and I must admit I’m guilty of directing this in my time) it feels like there’s constantly some version out there to be seen, from the village hall to London’s West End. So, the question is…is there still any place for ‘Joseph’ and his ridiculously large and colourful coat?
Interestingly, this musical started life as a pop cantata in 1968: a 15-minute number performed by the Colet Court School Choir in London. Andrew Lloyd Webber was just a teenager when he wrote this piece with his friend and collaborator Tim Rice. Though based on the story of ‘Joseph’ from the Book of Genesis, Webber and Rice modernised the story (remember, it was the sixties!) with some cheeky humour and pastiche pop songs to create a performance that instantly had charm. By 1972 a 35-minute musical theatre performance hit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with such force that in 1974 the full-length version as we know it was premiered at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester. Not bad for a guy still only in his mid-twenties.
For those few of you unfamiliar with the story, if indeed any exist, this musical follows one of Jacob’s 12 sons, Joseph. Clearly his dad’s favourite son, Jacob (in his folly) gives Joseph a multi-coloured coat. Joseph isn’t helped by the fact that he has lots of prophetic dreams, which he interprets as meaning that one day he’ll be top dog. He then proceeds to tell his brothers. You can imagine how they react to this lovely news. And unsurprisingly…..you’re kind of on the brothers’ side. I won’t spoil the rest of the story but let’s just say that Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams gets him into some more conundrums and out of other predicaments. Oh, and I must mention that there’s a shameless femme-fatalé, a Rees-Mogg style businessman and an Elvis interpreting Pharaoh along the way. I told you it was humorous.
This current touring production of ‘Joseph’ is fundamentally the same tour that ended in December 2017, with some new choreography by Gary Lloyd. The question is, of course, whether this production brings something new to the age old tale and is it still worth the trip to the theatre.
The answer…? Absolutely! No one is more surprised than me by how much I thoroughly enjoyed this production. From the moment the curtains rose, the sheer magic and energy of the performance swept me away. It knew exactly what it was: cheesy, colourful and ridiculous, and it played on it spectacularly in a way that far surpassed any version I’ve seen of this before. The sarcasm, wit, re-orchestration and brilliant new choreography brought it straight to the modern day. The inflatable sheep and the singing camel and sphinx head were just some of things that made it original. Adults can laugh out loud at the humour (and I did to the extent where I was crying at one point) and children would be blown away with the visual delight of the whole production.
And I take my hat off to the lead man, Jaymi Hensley, from boyband Union J. When I initially realised he was another X-Factor finalist I resigned myself to the fact he’ll probably be able to sing, but wouldn’t have the years of gruelling training most professional musical theatre performers have undergone. However, he’s single-handedly broken through my stereotypical view of X-Factor stars in the West End. He can act, dance and, boy, can he sing. To be fair, he’s actually had the training for it pre X-Factor and this really does show in his performance. He has the cheeky charm needed for Joseph, whilst bringing a new, operatic, gospel singing slant that I’ve not seen before. Give it 20 years and he’ll be serenading us as the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’ – he’s that good.
However, the real standout cast in the production are the brothers. Eleven men who are not your predictable musical theatre guys (enter the hairy biker and the Peaky Blinder look alike) but who perform with such power, enthusiasm and expert precision that they really do steal the show. Every number they perform is highly sarcastic and utterly electric, particularly ‘Canaan Days’.
Special note must also be given to the children’s choir from Stuart Stage School Young Showstoppers Choir in Heckmondwike. Sitting on stage for the entire show with total control is something professionals would struggle with and these youngsters did it whilst not missing a single cue. This is a whole ensemble performance, not just from the cast but also from the band, director, choreographer and the designers, who created a visual treat with their elaborate and colourful costume, lighting and set.
I am genuinely aghast at how much I loved this performance. The theatre was alive on a Tuesday night and the whole of the stalls (myself included) were up dancing at the end. It’s a show that you can’t help but smile and laugh along with, even if you don’t want to. If you have children, this is one show you must absolutely take them along to as it’s fast-paced, easy to follow and pretty short – plus it’s also great for us adults. This is one dream you definitely do not want to miss.
Joseph runs until 15 June at Leeds Grand Theatre.
All photographs by Pamela Raith Photography and provided by Leeds Grand Theatre.