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REVIEW: Way, Way Cool! ‘Joseph’ marks Utah Shakespeare Festival’s debut at Red Butte

Jun 07, 2019 10h24 ● By Jennifer J Johnson

The action—the gifting of the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by father Jacob to favorite son Joseph—is the catalyst for Biblical history and the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]    

Way, way back many decades ago, right after “Jesus Christ Superstar” shone…

Fans of the productive, but unenduring, musical collaboration between Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Timothy “Tim” Rice will recognize the familiar echo to the opening number of the 1965 musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Fans and non-fans alike may not be aware that “Joseph” was the first musical of the storied Lloyd Webber/Rice collaboration to have been performed—and that the creative musical theater tale of the coat of many colors from Genesis was written more than 50 years ago.

The beautiful thing? Not even those watching a live production of the show may realize the age of the show.

Why? Because Joseph continues to be fresh, relevant, interesting, and mostly—exuberantly fun to watch and even sing/dance along with.

Gettin Joseph with it

Lloyd Webber/Rice (LW/R) released the music for “Joseph” as a concept album in 1969. A unique collaboration between Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series, the Utah Shakespeare Festival and sponsor Zions Bank landed the zippy tunes, spanning musical genres and cultures, on the Red Butte stage Thursday, June 6.

The concert version is pretty much like a live performance of the album. There is sparse choreography. Some musical theater would be hampered by this, but the strength of LW/R’s epic show is more than plenty to fill the stage and its surroundings with joyful fun.

Utah’s unique relationship with the musical

Utah has a unique relationship with Joseph. Unlike LW/R’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Joseph is playfully irreverent versus soul-searching, rendering the hip Biblical retelling infinitely less threatening. The most famous “Joseph” (besides, questionably, the Joseph referenced in the Bible itself) is none other than Utah’s native son Donny Osmond, who has performed the role 2,000-plus times, starred in a video rendition, led audience sing-alongs of the show, and even lent his voice and epic persona to a cartoon version.

This summer, Utah Shakespeare Festival fans can catch a full version of the production June 27 – Oct. 12 at the Randall L. Jones Theater in Cedar City. It is the second time the festival has produced the show, with the last performance being back in 1988. Interestingly, Russ Benton, who portrayed Pharaoh at Red Butte and will perform this season, played the same role more than 20 years ago in the previous cast.

And the clouds didst part, the rain didst cease…

An almost Biblical weather intervention transformed stormy skies and heavy downpours to near-idyllic conditions for guests attending Thursday night’s show. Helping introduce the show to the audience were Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer J. Cox, fresh from announcing his 2020 bid to become Utah’s governor, Executive Producer for the Utah Shakespeare Festival Frank Mack, and Festival Artistic Director Brian Vaughn.

The show was greatly enjoyed by an enthusiastic, albeit tidy, audience. Groups of Gen Z’ers sat-danced, rocking to the music. When asked if they had performed in a high-school cast or in another rendition of the show, they responded in the negative.

They just love the music.

Also captivated was a man who vigorously danced to the music during the entire show. Positioning himself in the very front, to the East of the stage, the man almost seemed a cultural interpreter of the show, perhaps feeling the need to fill in the choreography missing from this intentional concert-only performance.

Not raining on their parade

While the sparse but committed audience was enthusiastic, the cast often—perhaps not accustomed to delivering Joseph as a concert, versus a full, choreographed musical theater performance—seemed restrained.

Regrettably, the title character, Joseph (Aaron Young), seemed lacking in commitment to putting himself “out there” and fully embracing the giddy, heroic role.

A perceived lack of energy was almost palpably frustrating in the “Benjamin Calypso” number, which is supposed to be extremely light-hearted and playful. Brother Judah (Tristan Turner) and cast missed an opportunity to deliver and delight.

Another somewhat stilted number was the “Go, Go, Go, Joseph.” Some of the musical parts seemed a bit off, and the amplitude low. This could have been due to mic issues in an entirely new venue far, far away from the Cedar City home of the Utah Shakespeare Festival. The pace picked up, toward the end of the number, with contagious clapping from the stage spreading to and engaging the audience.

Besides the amazing, timeless score, amid the beauty of Red Butte and camaraderie of the audience, the show was buoyed by strong performances offered up by the anchor part of pint-sized body/gigantic voice and presence Narrator (Samantha Allred), the Elvis-anachronistic Pharaoh (Benton), and humorously clueless father Jacob (Michael A. Harding), whose gifting of the multicolored coat to his favorite son was the catalyst for all of the Biblical drama-made-playful driving the show’s plot. Still-photos showcase the exuberant energy of select female members, elevating the performance of the cast. The title character, Joseph, and remainder of the cast, will likely relax more into their respective roles with the full-stage production in Cedar City.

“It was a wonderful time and a joy to connect with our Salt Lake audience,” Utah Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Brian Vaughn told City Journals. “[We are] very grateful to Zions Bank and all of the individuals who made it happen. I hope we can make it an annual event.”

Zions at the ideation helm
 

According to Tyler Morgan, Utah Shakespeare Festival marketing and communications director: “This was the brainchild of Scott Anderson, CEO of Zions Bank.”

Morgan said Anderson, an ardent Shakespeare Festival supporter, wanted to “bring something from down here up to Salt Lake City.”

At the Red Butte performance, the humble Anderson avoided making a stage cameo, traveling “incognito” as a music and musical theater fan.

“After it was done? The feeling? We very much need to do this again,” Morgan told City Journals.
 
“This is the first time, the festival has presented a concert version of a play, and we are very excited to be working with Red Butte Garden.”
 
 
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