SOUTH SALT LAKE — The Utah Children’s Theatre has a new name on the marquee. The company has renamed itself as the Parker Theatre to honor the family that founded it over 30 years ago. To usher in the new name, the company is staging the most popular play in Utah: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It is a surefire way to get as many audience members in the doors as possible and spread the word about the new name.
While the Parker Theatre’s Joseph is not the most opulent Utah production of the show, it is a nice introduction to the play. The director, Joanne M. Parker, takes the show back to its roots as a production for children, and every directorial choice is designed to appeal to the youngest theatre goers. The play brisk; she has reduced or eliminated the space for applause between songs and bypassed the optional portions of the show whenever possible. (Thank you, Ms. Parker, for cutting—as nearly all directors should—the interminable and unnecessary medley at the end of the play.) As a result, the show clocks in at less than 90 minutes (including the intermission), which was short enough for my preschooler to sit through.
Another way that the director tailors the play for children is the exaggerated actions she developed for the cast: brothers collapse to the floor, the ensemble takes large steps in time as they ask who should lead Egypt out of famine, and the Ishmaelites overemphasize their approval of Joseph after purchasing him into slavery. It is all cute and memorable for children, and it works because Joseph has never been a show loaded with subtlety.
McKay Elwood played Joseph aptly, and his wonder at seeing the coat for the first time is charming, as is Joseph’s naivety towards his brothers. And Elwood sings “Close Every Door” with a clear, controlled voice that serves the song well. The later scenes, though, show no transformation in Elwood’s acting; Joseph stays the same throughout the play, and there he lacks the power and authoritativeness the character needs in order to strike fear into his brothers.
The role of the narrator is shared between Mary Michael Hohl and Hannah Roskelley. They blend their performances seamlessly, and having them dressed the same and wearing identical black braided Egyptian wigs accentuates their similarities. Both women are talented enough to handle the role alone, and the hints of individuality (such as Hohl’s beautiful vocal belting or Roskelley’s eagerness in singing the plot) showed what a crime it was to have them share the spotlight. Forcing each one to be subservient to the dyad resulted in a generic pair of narrators, robbing each actress of the chance to create a vigorous performance that showcases her strengths.
The supporting cast had some gems in it. Eric Christian Lash doubled as Isaachar and the butler. He gave a soulful rendition of “Those Canaan Days,” and seemed absolutely joyful in the second act as he danced in the “Song of the King.” Brinton M. Wilkins played Reuben well, but was more memorable as Pharaoh. Wilkins played the Elvis-inspired character as a homage to the King’s—ahem—later career, with mannerisms that were the only sop thrown to the adults in the audience.
James B. Parker designed the lighting and set for the production. A series of projections (with an uncredited designer) did most of the heavy lifting for the set, with upstage walls, the proscenium and occasionally other pieces serving as a screen for background elements. The colorful patterns, video, and static backdrops changed frequently—helpful for little ones with short attention spans—and helped free up stage space and reduce scene change time. James B. Parker’s lighting is also helped the show live up to its name. Deeply saturated colors splashed down onto the actors throughout the show, making the play a truly technicolor experience.
What the Parker Theatre’s Joseph is missing is the extravaganza and spontaneity that Utah audiences expect from the show. This was especially noticeable in Marilyn May Montgomery‘s choreography, which lacked athleticism because it consists mostly of simple steps. The dancing in “Go, Go, Go, Joseph” was mostly grooving in place or clapping in rhythm as the cast members moved from one side of the stage to another. The truncated “Benjamin Calypso” has a few hops and steps in it, but nothing memorable. With Joseph being a dance show, the choreography was disappointingly basic, and only the soft shoe in “Potiphar” and the energy of “Jacob and Sons” hinted at the possibilities that Montgomery failed to unlock in this cast.
Julie Anderson‘s costumes were a mixed bag. The brothers were clad mostly in earth tones, with matching dark grey pants and black Converse shoes; it is a playful mix of modern and Biblical. Anderson’s choice to set Joseph apart by having him mostly in white helped my kids pick the title character out of the crowd quickly. A unique choice was to dress the narrators in black Egyptian styled dresses because it made the two feel enmeshed in the story. It was not a bad decision, but it was odd to have omnipotent narrators who push the story forward to look like they stepped out of ancient times.
The costumes, in general, seem to be problematic for the actors. I counted four different malfunctions: two hats that did not stay on heads, a pair of chaps that were not secure, and a belt that an ensemble member had to adjust. I felt sorry for actors who had to worry about their costume pieces and wondered how much this got in the way of their performances.
Through all of the production’s ups and downs, this is still the beloved classic Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s music and Tim Rice‘s lyrics (though with recorded instrumental arrangements that sound threadbare and tinny). And that is both the production’s strength and weakness. Fans of the show know exactly what to expect, and the infectious music will get the audience tapping their toes. But Joseph is produced so frequently in Utah that an equally good (or better) production within the next year is inevitable. It is nice to have a Joseph that even preschoolers can enjoy, but that will not be enough to pull in some people.