Nelson Pressley reviews Olney's 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat'

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:26 PM

Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals nearly always arrive overdone; that's partly why they've made a mint. Still, it's a surprise to see the frantic Lloyd Webber show now at the Olney Theatre Center, because it's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Though it has certainly known bloated productions before, "Joseph" is Lloyd Webber light and sweet - an early, funny one among his juggernaut-laden canon. Director David Hilder works this simple material hard, though, in his bright and restless staging. The most blatant examples of over-direction are in the unnecessary addition of a new character - a sleepless boy whom the narrator soothes with the biblical tale - and in the tall rolling set pieces that the cast is asked to push into dozens of different positions.

That really never stops, the whirling and repositioning of scenic designer Eugenia Furneaux-Arends's roughed-in, wood-frame, two-story rooms. The energy is misspent: Nothing much comes of it visually, and meanwhile the wit and soul of this kid-friendly Sunday school piece get lost in the clutter of ceaseless, pointless movement.

There is talent on the stage, namely Eleasha Gamble as the narrator. Lloyd Webber's songwriting can be brutal; he needs singers who can belt notes that leap up the scale at punishing intervals, and Gamble does that pretty well and manages to be a charming hostess, to boot. Stephawn Stephens is winning, too, unfurling his lush, deep voice during the droll French cabaret parody, "Those Canaan Days."

That's the strength of "Joseph," of course - those joyful, appealing pop songs that are so silly you can practically still hear the young Lloyd Webber and his lyricist pal Tim Rice cackling at the piano. But this show doesn't really have fun with the corny tunes. The country twang of "One More Angel in Heaven" gets some lively leapin' and stompin' choreography for Joseph's 11 brothers by Wendy Seyb, but the joke of the number never lands.

Neither does the potentially glorious Elvis-as-Pharaoh shtick, a "Joseph" centerpiece that here finds Russell Sunday inexplicably leering like Meat Loaf rather than swiveling like the King. Alan Wiggins is strong-voiced and calm, though not particularly charismatic, as Joseph; it's not a good sign that one of the most colorful turns comes not from the cast but from music director Christopher Youstra, briefly leaving his five-person orchestra upstage to play accordion with amusing haughtiness during "Those Canaan Days."

More casual, genuine humor is what's called for. Kids will get a kick anyway just watching the large cast burn calories as they cavort in flimsy white Egyptian costumes and (sigh) push that set around. Grown-ups, though, may wonder how much looser and how much more enjoyable it might be to hear the cast goof off with the songs at a cast party. As is, it looks like too much time was spent thinking about how to stage "Joseph," rather than how to perform it.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice. Directed by David Hilder. Costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Dan Covey. With MaryLee Adams, Heather Marie Beck, Mardee Bennett, Kurt Boehm, Erin Driscoll, Parker Drown, Jamie Eaker, L.C. Harden Jr., Vincent Kempski, Ashleigh King, T.J. Langston, Nick Lehan, Ben Lurye, Briana Marcantoni, Jeramiah Miller, Sean Silvia, Andrew Sonntag, R. Scott Williams. About 80 minutes. Through March 20 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.

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