Monday, July 31, 2017

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Artistry

When I heard Artistry was opening their 2017-2018 season with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I thought, "Why?" Why are they doing this frequently produced show now, and why do I need to see it again when I've seen it so many times (the Chanhassen alone did it seven times in three years, or was it the other way around?). But I did go, and I'm thrilled that I did because this is a Joseph and a Joseph unlike any I've ever seen before. The familiar score and story are seen through a new and different lens. Direction, choreography, staging, set, costumes, music, casting, and performance all contribute to the most inventive production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat I've ever seen. It's pretty far out, and if you're an Andrew Lloyd Webber traditionalist, you may not be pleased. But I dug it. Read on to find out why I did, and why you might too.

Here are ten reasons to see Artistry's production of Joseph, a show I once called "a fun romp through slavery and famine":
  1. It all starts with the vision of director/choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell. In a note in the program he says, "I took a fresh look at the production and created a contemporary staging... to shed light on the identical issues we still face: people in poverty fighting for their place in the world, dreamers standing up to power, overcoming obstacles to become a force of good." All elements of the production aid in creating this vision of a Joseph that's no longer set in ancient Egypt. It's outside of time and space, and at times feels like we're in the Middle Ages, or the future, or outer space. I'm not gonna lie, it's weird, and it might not be everyone's cup of tea, but it'll definitely make you see the story in a new light.
  2. John Jamison as Joseph
    (photo by Devon Cox)
  3. John Jamison is phenomenal as Joseph. He was a performing apprentice at Children's Theatre, but I first took note of him in Penumbra's new musical Girl Shakes Loose earlier this year. He's a unique talent; his performance of "Close Every Door" is a thing I've never seen before. In addition to his serious musical theater chops, the casting of an African American Joseph is a wonderful and interesting choice, and a huge step forward for Artistry in the area of color-conscious casting and representation*, with the thoughtful inclusion of several people of color in the cast. When Joseph is a black man being sold into slavery by his brothers and put into chains, it adds another dimension to the story.
  4. Jennifer Grimm as the Narrator
    (photo by Devon Cox)
  5. Joseph may be in the title, but the star of the show really is the Narrator, who functions as the main storyteller and is on stage (and singing) for most of the show. Jennifer Grimm is a gifted vocalist whom I've mostly seen singing jazz or standards, so it's a thrill to see her as the lead in a musical. She has a wonderful presence on stage and almost seems to bring the story about as she hands out costumes and directs the action. Plus - that voice! She brings a new and interesting nuance to every note she sings.
  6. The other 19 members of the cast are simply credited as company, and what a terrific acting/singing/dancing company they are. They all play multiple roles and most are on stage most of the time. Too many great performances to call out, but special mention must be made of the silver fox Steven Meerdink as Jacob and the ever fabulous Brandon A. Jackson as the Pharoah.
  7. I realized when as I was listening to the music on the drive to Bloomington that this show is my musical theater guilty pleasure. I'm not the biggest ALW fan, but something about this show is so infectious! Several of the songs are stylistically different than the rest - there's a twangy Country-Western song, an Elvis impersonation, a Calyposo number. Most of the productions I've seen really play up the gimmick of each, but not so here. Under music director Denise Prosek, those crazy style changes are toned down so that it's a more cohesive and consistent sound, which allows these songs to be heard in a whole new way. And it sounds pretty fabulous as played by the seven-piece onstage orchestra (plus the occasional addition of cello played by company member and quadruple threat Dan Piering), led by Jason Hansen (who also gets a moment at center stage with his accordion).
  8. Michael Matthew Ferrell has filled the show with movement. The choreography is athletic, modern, and powerful, with lots of leaping and jumping and strong movements, balanced by some softer lovely movements. There's also a bit of physical theater technique with the company members acting as tables or walls or part of the scenery.
  9. the gorgeous cast and design of Joseph (photo by Devon Cox)
  10. The costumes are sick (is that something that the kids still say?). Barb Portinga is credited as the "costume coordinator." I'm not sure what that means exactly, but she noted that was asked to "put fabulous, sexy clothes on stage," and she definitely has done that. Our two leads are resplendent in white, and the company is dressed in outrageous gender-bending black and white costumes that utilize mesh, leather, spandex, and crazy patterns. Plus - men in skirts! Rather than changing costumes between characters, the Narrator hands out scarves or collars or capes, a small change that tells the audience who they're playing now.
  11. The set (designed by Curtis Phillips) is simple and static, but magnificent. Stairs ascend to the orchestra at the back of the stage like a pyramid, with a few stairs on either side, providing plenty of opportunities for that powerful athletic movement I mentioned.
  12. Remember that quote from #1? "People in poverty fighting for their place in the world, dreamers standing up to power, overcoming obstacles to become a force of good." Yeah, that. This is a musical that leaves you with a feeling of hope, joy, and togetherness. Who doesn't need more of that these days?!
  13. It's short! Clocking in at just over 90 minutes including intermission and extended curtain call, this is a musical that will leave you wanting more rather than looking at your watch to see when it's going to be over. You'll be left with plenty of time to enjoy the Minnesota late summer evening, or if you're a morning person like me, go to bed at a reasonable time!

For the other Fringers out there, I know this is a busy time, but the show continues a few weeks past Fringe, and is barely longer than a Fringe show itself so could possibly be squeezed in during the Fringe. I don't think most of Artistry's usual audience is too concerned with the Minnesota Fringe Festival, so hopefully many people will see this fresh, modern, crazy Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (playing through August 27).

*I don't know if it's a coincidence, but #TCTheater saw back-to-back productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber biblical musicals with African American leads (see also the Ordway's recently closed Jesus Christ Superstar). I like it! For more on the ideas of representation, diversity, and inclusion in #TCTheater, check out the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' monthly event called "Continuing the Conversation" (next one scheduled for August 28 at Sandbox Theatre).