For many, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is their first foray into musical theatre, either on or off the stage – the early Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical is frequently staged in school productions. In fact, the 54-year-old show’s biggest con – being stronger on style than substance – is exactly what makes it a perfect first musical for children. It’s rife with earworms, eye-popping costumery and campy characters, and as a result, when done poorly it can be cheesy, if not downright groan-worthy.
Ensuring that’s not the case is an arduous task, even before adding into the mix the fact that Joseph hasn’t graced major Australian stages in more than 30 years. But thanks to a winning cast (led by none other than Paulini of Australian Idol and Young Divas fame) combined with sharp direction by Laurence Connor, this new production proves there’s still space for Joseph in the major musical canon – with a few catches.
To recap: Joseph is the son of Jacob, a polygamist with 12 sons by various wives. Joseph’s knack for prophecy and interpreting dreams earns him the adoration of his father and the envy of his siblings. The tension is only made worse by Jacob’s lack of effort to conceal his favouritism by gifting Joseph the titular dreamcoat. When Joseph relays a dream about one day ruling over his siblings, it’s the final straw: in a very Old Testament act of overreaction, the brothers sell him into slavery and tell Jacob he’s been killed. Brutal.
Possibly due to nerves, the first few expositional songs of Act One fail to land on opening night. But by the time we arrive at the infectious ‘Joseph’s Coat’, accompanied by dazzling stage lighting that changes colour to match the chorus of “red and yellow and green and brown…”, the ensemble hits its stride. From there, the genre-morphing numbers go from strength to strength, matched by taut choreography across can-cans, tap dances, calypsos and jigs.
As the narrator, Paulini is a likeable and comforting presence, and her velvety voice lends the role authority and trustworthiness. She proves her versatility by donning a beard and deepening her tones to slip into the role of Jacob, and oozes sensuality and villainy as Potipher’s seductress wife. As Joseph, Euan Fistrovic Doidge (Cruel Intentions, Fun Home) radiates boyish charm; there’s a playfulness to his voice, and with Act One’s penultimate track, the emotional banger ‘Close Every Door’, he demonstrates the ability to shift between subdued and whisper-soft tones to thunderous, emotive belting. With the exception of AFL star Shane Crawford – a piece of stunt casting who’s actually quite funny as the Pharoah – the cast is packed with vocal powerhouses.
This, combined with its eye-catching set brilliantly lit by Ben Cracknell – makes Joseph absolutely jubilant. But like many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows (hello, Phantom of the Opera) there are problematic, eyebrow-raising moments, namely costumes and musical motifs that lean into stereotypes about the Middle East. It’s certainly a product of its time (Lloyd Webber and Rice began work on it in 1967, although it didn’t get a full professional production till 1973), and Joseph is perhaps best enjoyed when you don’t overthink it and allow yourself to enjoy the colourful spectacle before you. Any dream, it turns out, will do.