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Theater review: ‘Joseph’ delivers promised bold new vision

This dream will do.

As advertised, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” directed and choreographed by Michael Matthew Ferrell, is far and away the most original vision of a musical to grace the Duluth Playhouse stage in the 10 years I have been paid to pontificate on local theatrical productions.

This was clear from the opening song, which is slowed down considerably. Ali Littrell Finstrom’s Narrator brings a vocal maturity that immediately creates a greater sense of gravity, even with the twinkle in her eye. As Joseph, a buff Shad Olsen rocks a series of loincloths, and his strong vocals also make it clear this time the hero is no mere strippling.

Ferrell’s comprehensive strategic use of slower tempos, along with some stellar new harmonies and a few changes in who sings what, renews these songs and creates a more adult version of “Joseph.”

The critical test comes at the end of Act 1, when Joseph launches into a more dramatic version of “Close Every Door.” My initial reaction was that Olsen was overplaying his hand, but then Ferrell ups the power of the a cappella closing and the performance wrenched an emotional response from me.

I have always thought the act should end right there, with Joseph at his nadir in prison, because the up-tempo “Go Go Joseph” shattered the spiritual elegance of Joseph’s simple psalm. But, again, Finstrom began that song slowly, accentuating the dramatic situation, and for the first time that transition from one song to the next actually worked for me.

Pulling that off impressed me. Big time.

“Joseph” was originally a children’s cantata by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and its chief hallmark has always been the wide variety of musical styles, running the gamut from country western to calypso. Ferrell downplays the cute elements and somewhat mutes the diverse musical styles, which creates a more cohesive musical tapestry.

The musical mega-star Garrett Pierce Passer’s Pharaoh is channeling might be a step down in rank, but is certainly appropriate to time and place. Matias Valero as Gad offers a more affective predominantly solo version of “Those Canaan Days,” and it turns out Erin Blazevic has the voice of an angel.

Complementing the monochromatic scenic design by Curtis Philips, the black-and-white costuming offers an aesthetic that crosses “Ascot Gavotte” with “Kinky Boots” (but I have to confess Pharaoh has the cooler coat).

Handling the new arrangements, musical director Andy Kust’s eight-piece orchestra, all dressed in black, is a full rock band augmented by a cello and various combinations of woodwinds that extend the emphasis on seriousness to the choice of instruments.

Ferrell’s choreography for his energetic troupe frequently reaches the full-workout video level, sometimes using the stage for percussion purposes, and includes some fun moments, most notably the “Benjamin Calypso” hand-jive.

Finally, this show breaks the “Stars Hollow: The Musical” record by having the cast reprising 10 songs at the end before Joseph gets his titular coat back and we get to the well-deserved curtain call.

Go see it

  • What: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 18
  • Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.
  • Tickets: $32 adults, $27 youth/students. Call (218) 733-7555 or duluthplayhouse.org
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