Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was a fantastic and popular show even before it was taken to Broadway in 1982 and long before the 1991 film release starring Donny Osmond. The original concept being for a church school's "pop cantata," Joseph has continued to endure as a riotous, high-energy slice of musical theatre that covers a wide range of musical styles and captures a depth of talented actors, singers, and dancers. The coolest part of the show, when done well, is the play-within-a-play aspect that plunges a children's choir into the action to add not only excitement, but literal and figurative color.
North Carolina Theatre Conservatory's student production of Joseph, directed and choreographed by Tito Hernandez, was absolutely brilliant. From the vibrant scenic and lighting designs that so wonderfully highlight the story, to the energetic pit orchestra that must be versatile enough to portray no less than nine musical genres, nearly everything was impeccable. Musically, the balance could have been better between the electric and acoustic instruments – the three keyboards, guitar, and bass drowned out the strings and winds in several places, including the overture – and there were some intonation issues. However, solos were wonderful throughout the show, and from hoedown to disco, the styles were done very true to form. The talent in the room was almost overwhelming, and that's to say nothing about the cast.
Matthew Sheaffer's Joseph was incredible, ranging from a soft and innocent son to his fast rise to fame as a cool and confident ruler. The iconic "Close Every Door" ballad, such a departure from the show's energetic humor, provides a somber moment of reflection on spirituality, and Sheaffer's expertly handled key changes led the song through an emotional transformation.
Narrators Emily Foley and Becky Layko had one of the most difficult tasks of the show: taking the audience through all the action while intimating Joseph's emotional state, feeding off the action on stage and taking prominent but unobtrusive roles in almost each and every song. Their voices were incredibly strong but able to blend and harmonize with each other seamlessly, and they molded themselves into whatever scene was happening, whether it was to be storytellers to the children on stage, choristers in Joseph's forlorn prison cell, or hysterical fans of the rocking, Elvis-inspired Pharaoh played by Collin Yates. Yates threatened to steal the show during Act II, after all, he was the King. His animated singing while dancing and impersonating Elvis was just wonderful all around; and surrounded by excellent swing dancing, he was electric with enthusiasm.
Other notable supporting roles, because there were so many opportunities to showcase so many different talents in this show, included Jacob, father of Joseph and his brothers, who was played by Patrick Harvey – he also doubles as the delightfully stylized Potiphar. Several of the brothers got to take over different songs that highlight more talented people, like Joshua Keen (Gad) singing and dancing alongside the beautiful young dancer Ellen Pierce in "Those Canaan Days," the goofy overacted French café ballad that surprisingly featured some glorious moments of men's harmony – which can be an incredibly difficult thing to find with students. Jack Russell Richardson (Reuben) in "One More Angel in Heaven/Hoedown" channeled his country singer accent and also his evangelical preacher routine, accompanied by Gabby Simone (Wife), who delivered an expertly clear opera sound. Another favorite was "Benjamin Calypso," led by Kalyse Connor (Judah), who had to channel her alto voice into a tenor role with a couple notes that were just too low, but did a great and charismatic job nonetheless.
Although children's choirs can be a dangerous game, toeing the line between cute but untrained and precocious, this show found a great mix of children that already seemed to be great actors and singers. While some occasionally fidgeted uncomfortably or missed a mark and had to squirm back into a straight line, they brought so much passion and depth to the show. The older students and young adult actors fed off of the pure excitement of the children, and the children watched their older peers do amazing things and fed off their talent and maturity, leading several of them to deliver charming solos.
The only moments that didn't seem to fit into the flow of the action were the underwhelming "A Pharaoh Story" at the beginning of Act II, and the final number, "Close Every Door Reprise," which wasn't a reprise so much as an exact repeat of the first iteration, making the energy from the resolution of the end of the show fall completely flat. It was an understandable inclusion, since Sheaffer did a great job with this song, and it was enjoyable to hear it a second time and allow the children a part of the curtain call, but performing the exact song and blocking seemed a little gratuitous. Thankfully, the curtain call – which featured a nearly complete medley of the other songs in the show – immediately brought the energy back.
The dancing in this show was similarly admirable, and nearly everyone in the cast had to learn extensive choreography – and again I have to give a nod to the Narrators, who took part in seemingly every dance. The hoedown and disco moments were notably impressive, including a large tap break that made the entire audience squeal with delight. Although not always polished and perfectly timed together, individual dancers' enthusiasm and acting made up for any shortcomings as they gave their own responses to the action. Even the nearly unbearable length of the curtain call written into this show did not seem to flag the performers; there was one definite drop in energy between moments, but the full cast kept ramping up intensity until the final note was sung, leaving the audience on their feet cheering for several minutes.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat closes Sunday, July 10. Remaining performances are already sold out, but a wait list will be taken at the door, and NCTC says they will accommodate walk up ticket buyers to the best of their ability.