You have got to love "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Never mind that the score, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber as a teenage prodigy of schlock, sounds like the musical equivalent of Brand X. Never mind that Tim Rice's lyrics haven't one decibel of snap, crackle or pop. Never mind that the book offers zilch in the way of characters, feeling or human interest.
You've got to love it because this production is a steamroller designed to make you love it - or else. First off, it's from the Bible, so the whole enterprise comes more or less with God's endorsement, though He's a very ecumenical God whose opening psalm of praise is entitled, "Any Dream Will Do." Then there is a whole sea of children - 48 of them - skipping about the stage and caroling la-la-las, and every single one of them as lovable as if they were auditioning for "Annie Warbucks."
And then there's Michael Damian, who is nothing if not lovable. Not sexy, mind you. Damian has a body that's waxed and bronzed and sculpted and vigorous and yet, by some miracle of prophylaxis, completely asexual. No, he's lovable because his smile, surreal and unrelenting, tells you that you must submit to his charm and love him every bit as much as he seems to love himself. And Kelli Rabke, whose job as narrator is to smile at all the children as they smile at her, is lovable in much the same way, although she wears business suits instead of a suntan. But perky? No one could be perkier.
Choregrapher Anthony Van Laast has invented a dance style that perfectly mirrors the score, full of energy and devoid of imagination. There is a lot of high-spirited skipping and arms waved over the head, plus enough traditional hieroglyphic hand signals to fill a pyramid. The cumulative effect is as enlivening as a marathon performance of the hokey-pokey.
Just when you think you've come to the end of the tunnel of love, there is the longest reprise in the history of show business, as the whole cast changes into aerobic workout clothes and repeats every song at least three times, while the audience is coerced into clapping. The applause drives Kelli and Michael into a rapture of self-admiration, until Michael mounts a hydraulic pedestal that raises him up over the audience like a very golden calf, while the vast cast simulates heavenly bliss and plastic glitter dust rains down upon the stage.
So much has happened to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (not to mention the still unknighted Tim Rice) since their first musical rock extravaganza "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." It seems so lost in the misty past that one might have expected it to have been only in black and white.
And indeed, this new production, staged by one of those youngish British whiz-kid directors, Steven Pimlott, which opened last night at the Minskoff Theater, does have something of the air of a newly "colorized" - and certainly re-amplified - version about it.
This "Joseph Mark II" is different, it is better, and it is still mildly vacuous, a triumph of style over substance, where only Lloyd Webber's skillful pastiche music and the clever irony of Rice's lyrics add passing interest to the all-pervasive, and basically character-less noise.
Frank Dunlop's original Brooklyn Academy of Music staging - in 1976 - and Nadine Baylis' designs emphasized the mock-simplicity of this soft-rock canter through the Old Testament. The production by Tony Tanner that ended up on Broadway five years later was more glitzy and less homespun.
Then in the summer of 1992 - a quarter-century after "Joseph" started its theatrical saga - Pimlott, the present designer Mark Thompson, and the new orchestrator John Cameron, virtually re-invented the show, and set it off to dizzy success in London, feature a series of British pop stars.
Make no mistake about it. This is now a big, sassy, brassy Broadway musical - with a huge cast (about 80, although 50 of them are a children's choir) and settings that do everything but sit up and beg.
And the wild, "Tommy"-like final sensory assault, a musical coda called "Joseph Megamix," is an unforgettable study in overkill vulgarity that is grudgingly admirable.
The cast is not quite as it should be. The Joseph, Michael Damian, a minor pop singer and soap-opera star, leaves a smiling gap where a hero should be, while Kelli Rabke doesn't make much more of the Narrator.
Robert Torti is a lot better as the Elvis-impersonator Pharaoah, and Joseph's brothers are also a pretty lively lot. However, the punch of the show is not so much in its performers but - and this may sound odd - in its performance.
Pimlott and his crew have done Lloyd Webber and Rice proud - extracting every available ounce of wit, both musical and literary, out of the score, and packaging it like a bat out of showbiz hell.
The result is not exactly likable, certainly not lovable and scarcely (to me at least) enjoyable, but oddly and undeniably impressive. The Old Testament has never had it so brassy.
The most interesting fable at work in the flashy revival of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the first collaboration by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, isn't the familiar biblical tale from which the musical takes its plot. It is, instead, a show-biz saga of lost innocence, the story of how a modest, tuneful little musical from the 1960's grew and grew, through successive incarnations, into an oversized, glittering symbol of the Age of Hype.
"Joseph" began life 26 years ago, when Mr. Rice and Mr. Lloyd Webber were 19 and 23, respectively, as a 20-minute cantata for an English boys' school choir. In short order, it was revised and expanded, turning into the sort of unpretentious, inexpensively mounted musical that relied mostly on its infectious melodies and young, enthusiastic casts. An understandable favorite of schools and stock companies, it received a fondly remembered, intimate production at the Entermedia and Royale Theaters in 1982.
Intimate is not a word that springs to mind in connection with the current version, which started off at the London Palladium in 1991 and has been racking up hefty box office grosses in its recent North American tour. The show, staged by the British director Steven Pimlott, is as slick, spectacular and depersonalized as a Las Vegas revue or an elaborate theme ride at Disney World. Correspondingly, it seems specifically aimed at children weaned on the technologically sophisticated special effects of Spielberg movies and Michael Jackson concerts.
These are some of the things you'll see on the cavernous stage of the Minskoff Theater, courtesy of the set and costume designer, Mark Thompson: a giant white sphinx with big, roving blue eyes; a mechanical talking camel and asp; an outsized golden-winged chariot that might have been left over from the set of "Intolerance," and a rotating succession of illuminated miniature models of the Wonders of the World, which have been expanded, in a nod to the show's new audience, to include the Chrysler building.
There are also (presumably) real people on the stage, lots of them. There is a multi-racial chorus of 50 children who, clad in white and bright-colored sports clothes, suggest a United Colors of Benetton ad. They hum, bounce and clap their hands and are allowed, like the other cast members, to repeat some of the musical's big numbers. (Such reprises are what stretch the 70-some-minute score into a show of more than two hours.)
In addition, there is a gymnastic corps of singers and dancers who wear a bevy of cross-cultural costumes to correspond to the many pastiche musical numbers in the show. These include a twangy, cowboyish elegy to Joseph, after his scheming brothers sell him into slavery, that shifts into a big hoedown dance sequence; a funny, if overextended, Jacques Brel-like ode to better times called "Those Canaan Days," and a rock-and-roll recounting of Pharaoh's dream, performed by an Elvis Presley-style Pharaoh (Robert Torti), who of course wears blue suede shoes. The style, if not the sentiment, of the 60's is invoked in the lengthy, psychedelically lit disco number that concludes the show's first act.
Of the performers, only the 11 actors playing Joseph's brothers project something resembling a human personality. They make one grateful, in fact, for their exaggerated hamminess. As the Narrator, Kelli Rabke, who provides the show's essential continuity, sings smoothly, but, dressed in a glittering bustier and tuxedo pants, she looks and behaves like a professionally charming hostess in an expensive Los Angeles restaurant.
Joseph himself is played by Michael Damian, an antiseptically handsome actor who stars on the popular television soap opera "The Young and the Restless." (Lest one forget that, the title has been worked into a joke delivered by the Pharaoh.) Mr. Damian has a reedy, sliding, whispery voice and in his solos tends to display emotion by hunching up his shoulders and lifting his palms to the heavens. For much of the show, he wears modest variations on the loincloth, and his torso is the most commanding aspect of his stage presence.
For all of its stagecraft, this "Joseph" doesn't really come alive until its last 10 minutes, when the entire ensemble appears on a bare stage in white dance clothes to recap, once again, the show's big numbers. Less, here, is much more. Suddenly, Anthony Van Laast's choreography, which had mostly recalled variety show pageantry before, takes on a new vitality and precision. And even allowing for the dismal, homogenizing effects of artificial amplification, the songs brim anew with their infectious melodiousness.
In fact, on a musical level, "Joseph" still offers a crystal-clear blueprint of Mr. Lloyd Webber's insidiously addictive style. With its easy-to-follow, bouncy rhythms and airy melodies, the score evokes not only the pop standards Mr. Lloyd Webber is parodying, but also many of the motifs he would incorporate into his later, more ambitious works. It is music that burrows into the memory like an earwig. So be warned: Long after the visual spectacle of this production has faded from recollection, you'll probably still be living with fragments of its score.
After smash runs everywhere and possibly forever in London, the "Dreamcoat" juggernaut has landed in New York with a big cast, four choruses, sets that are at once humorous and spectacular, and $ 5.5 million in advance ticket sales, which isn't bad for a show that began as a 15-minute cantata 25 years ago.
This was the first collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber (19 at the time) and Tim Rice (23), commissioned by a private school and in the ensuing years progressively lengthened, not to say padded, for ever-larger venues.
In a brilliant marketing stroke, a children's chorus has been added to the mix (actually, four groups appearing in rotation). And of course there's the star around which this machine is currently built: Michael Damian, Danny Romalotti of "The Young and the Restless."
Lloyd Webber's tunes show the gift for homage and parody that would become his trademark.
Rice's lyrics ("All those things you saw in your pajamas," Joseph sings to Pharaoh, "are just a long-range plan for your farmers") are unpretentious, clever, silly. Indeed, for a freshman exercise, "Dreamcoat" is a charming musical.
This production of "Dreamcoat" may be many things, but charming isn't one of them. Mark Thompson's high-tech package would be just as comfortable in Las Vegas or a convention center auditorium as it is packed into the sterile Minskoff.
And whatever marquee value Damian may bring to the mix, his small-screen skills transfer uneasily to the big stage, where he's a blank -- all colorless voice and zero stage presence.
The staging by Steven Pimlott and Anthony Van Laast is equally generic, a triumph of traffic control over creative vision. To blow it up to its two-hour duration, the show now features a 20-minute-plus intermission, songs attenuated to the point of disappearance and a final disco number --"Joseph Megamix"-- that may be the longest curtain call on record.
"Is Andrew Lloyd Webber still alive?" my 13-year-old companion wondered. "Does he know about this?" He is, he does.