There was much to like in 5-Star Theatricals’ reinvention of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical “Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which concluded its two-weekend run at the Fred Kavli Theatre last Sunday. An ambitious change in choreography and the key alteration of a significant character had mixed results, but in general, 5-Star’s production was an enthusiastically received kaleidoscope of color and exhilarating perpetual motion. 5-Star Theatrical is, of course, the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre, and in this, the inaugural production under its new name, 5-Star continues the excellence its predecessor showcased during its decades as Ventura County’s resident professional musical theater company.
Anytime the word “reimagining” is used in conjunction with a Broadway musical, warning flares go up. Many disasters have resulted from meddling with a musical’s original concept, but in this case, 5-Star’s managing director Will North made the right call in bringing in television’s Dave Scott to incorporate hip-hop dance into his new vision for the show. The result freshened up the familiar story without overwhelming it and the spectacular choreography was enthusiastically received.
Using hip-hop as storytelling is a relatively recent Broadway development, notably instituted in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hugely successful productions of In the Heights and Hamilton. Hip-hop works well within Joseph because of the freewheeling nature of the show itself; brazenly incorporating musical and visual anachronisms in its score and lyrics.
Adam Hollick led the cast in the title role of Joseph, who is sold into slavery by his 11 brothers, jealous of their father’s preference for Joseph and his “coat of many colors.” The sculpted Hollick makes a particularly hunky Joseph, a character who is normally played as boyish and naïve. Hollick had trouble imbuing his character with the passion required for the role and mainly becomes eye candy, acknowledged by a sight gag in which he wields a swimming pool skimmer net while dredging the orchestra pit, a comedic wink to the audience.
In addition to Scott’s choreography, the key role of the Narrator was also dramatically changed. Traditionally, the Narrator presents the story of Jacob and his sons as a lesson to a chorus of school children, who often remain on stage throughout the show. Director North presents the Narrator as an omniscient representation of God, a Svengali-like puppeteer manipulating and beckoning the characters while the action is presented around her. Even in the upbeat “Pharaoh’s Story,” in which the Narrator normally joins in the ’50s sock hop shenanigans, Dickinson is a frozen like statue, with the cast cavorting around her. Garbed in a flowing gown, Dickinson does an excellent job bringing North’s vision to life, although her pleasing voice becomes shrill in her upper register, something that could have been attenuated by the theater’s sound technicians.
The problem with this reinterpretation is that it leaves the children’s chorus, consisting of students from local elementary and middle schools, without any practical reason for being on stage. Dressed in contemporary clothes, they appear only for large production numbers. (Scott provided them with simple dance and hand movements.) It also removed the Narrator from joining in the fun celebrated by the rest of the cast, one of the elements of the original production that sets it apart from other uses of a narrator (The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair and the narrator in Into the Woods are other examples of a narrator becoming involved with a musical’s characters.)
The Narrator’s use aside, 5-Star’s production was a dazzling feast for the eyes and ears, with exemplary performances turned in by Patrick Cassidy, in a hammy turn as the Elvis-like Pharaoh. (Cassidy played Joseph in two national tours of the show). Marc Ginsburg was outstanding as elder brother Reuben, as was the venerable David Gilchrist as Jacob and Potiphar, the latter presented as a bewigged Liberace. Patrick Viloria’s hip-hop dance moves were stunning in “Benjamin Calypso” while Naomi Pacheco was effective as Potiphar’s sinewy, vixenous wife.
The comical shtick usually associated with “Those Canaan Days” and “One More Angel in Heaven” was disappointingly reduced in this version but the vaunted “Megamix” finale more than made up for it, which included the most stunning displays of Scott’s choreography. Beth Eslick’s wonderful costumes were highlighted by monochromatic black-and-white patterns for Joseph’s brothers, contrasted by psychedelic garb for the stunning “Go, Go, Joseph” production number. The minimal set design was somewhat disappointing, but was compensated by effective upstage projections that even utilized satirical social media profiles. Dan Redfield led the superb pit orchestra.
Although the problems inherent in 5-Star’s production kept it from earning a 5-star review, there was enough excellence in the show to make us confident that the company will continue the stellar example set by the lamented, departed Cabrillo Music Theatre brand.