Provo Theatre Company’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is one of about 1,000 such productions happening in Utah this year, so they want it to be different.
“Different?” you say. “How can you make ‘Joseph’ different?” Indeed, it’s not like the show has a tremendous amount of character depth or serious themes that one production can draw out more than another. What are they going to do, focus on the internal struggles of Isaachar? Help the audience see the true feelings of Gad?
What PTC has done is turn “Joseph” into a sort of pop-culture free-for-all, with jokes and joke-like bits strewn throughout the show. Joseph brags that his coat is from fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger; the Ishmaelites are dressed as I-15 construction workers; when Pharaoh is referred to as being “right-wing,” a picture of Rush Limbaugh is held up; when the brothers come to beg for food, Joseph says, a la “Seinfeld,” “No soup for you!” Oh, and there’s a “Titanic” reference. (Of COURSE there’s a “Titanic” reference. How could there not be?)
These modifications are unlikely to upset anyone. “Joseph” already takes some serious liberties with the Bible story it’s based on; so why not take liberties with “Joseph”? Composer and lyricist Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice intended for it to be a fun, zany show, and PTC director Charles Lynn Frost is merely taking that philosophy and updating it.
There are also some modern-day characters thrown in for extra laughs. In some cases, this works; in others, it doesn’t.
A case where it is genuinely funny is when the back-up singers come on dressed like the Spice Girls. At first this addition seems superfluous, until a few lines from a Spice Girls song are thrown in, blending in perfectly with the existing musical score. It winds up being funny simply because they don’t make a big issue of it. The show lets us be amused by it without hitting us over the head and saying, “Hey, look! It’s the Spice Girls! Isn’t that funny?!”
The other additional characters don’t work precisely because we ARE hit over the head with them. The Butler, in jail with Joseph, is played like Austin Powers, from last year’s hit film “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” This is an entirely irrelevant, Road Show-esque change. I imagine Troy Williams, who plays the Butler in this show, began doing his Austin Powers impression at a rehearsal, and Frost told him to play the Butler that way — never mind that his Austin Powers impression isn’t even very GOOD.
The other one is the Baker, also imprisoned with Joseph. Now the Baker is a woman — specifically, Linda Richman, from the “Coffee Talk” sketches on “Saturday Night Live” six years ago. Brice Hawks does a good enough job impersonating this character — but it’s not his character. It was Mike Myers’ character on “SNL” (come to think of it, Austin Powers was played by Mike Myers, too — what’s going on here?), and it was funny when HE did it. Having Hawks play the Baker as Linda Richman is, again, superfluous and not really funny. We’ve heard the “I’m getting verklempt” jokes before. On “SNL.” Six years ago.
Cory Bench is appropriately handsome, tan and toothy as Joseph, and he has a singing voice that is strong, even, and carries the show well.
Even better is the Narrator, played by Lisa Weight, who belts out everything she sings with gusto and finesse. Being detached from the goofiness of the action, Weight plays the Narrator with a great deal of class and dignity.
Other principals include Marc Haddock as a robust Jacob (a refreshing change from the bearded-and-old Jacobs we usually see), and Stephen Briggs as the Elvis-like Pharaoh.
The brothers are all played with energy and vigor, many of them excellent singers and dancers, and the cast does its best to dance around on that tiny PTC stage. Sometimes the choreography is awkward because of the limited space, but there are other times when it works well and is indeed impressive.
The whole show is kind of like that, in fact. Some things work really well and are inventive and funny — Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar’s strobe-light chase scene is original, as is having Joseph read books like “Prison for Dummies” and “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Jailbirds” while in jail — and other things just don’t work at all.
It seems that in an attempt to be something other than your run-of-the-mill production of “Joseph,” this one goes a bit overboard, adding more things and making more changes than are really necessary. (Like why is “Those Canaan Days” played as Jewish instead of French? It’s not any funnier that way — just different.)
Provo Theatre Company’s shows are always excellent, and this one is only slightly below the theater’s reputation. It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser, and the opening night crowd was certainly pleased, so in that regard it fulfills its mission.
Don't we all know people who think they're funny just because they can impersonate characters who are funny on TV? I don't understand the logic there. Being able to imitate the Church Lady, or Hans and Franz, doesn't make you funny: it makes you a good mimic. It means yes, you are capable of identifying humor. But actually producing humor on your own? No. All you can do is reproduce the humor of others. And that's not really such a great skill to have.
I guess if people were unfamiliar with Austin Powers or Linda Richman, the characters would have been funny in "Joseph." (I think the Deseret News critic was one of those people. She referred to Linda Richman as "the Paul/Paula character" from "SNL," apparently remembering that Paul Baldwin, also played by Mike Myers, originally hosted "Coffee Talk" before being replaced by the more vivacious and amusing Linda Richman.)
Anyway, those characters really bugged me in this show precisely because they were rip-offs. Having the Pharaoh act like Elvis is different: Elvis was a real person. Doing impressions of real people is one thing; doing impressions of comedians doing the characters THEY created is a rip-off. And I won't stand for it.
As you may know by now, it is impossible to express an honest-but-negative opinion in Utah County without making someone angry. A few days after this was printed, an opinion piece appeared in the American Fork Citizen, a paper whose existence I was not even aware of until someone showed me this article. In it, editor Marc Haddock -- quite coincidentally, a member of the "Joseph" cast (he played Jacob) -- criticized me for my review. I quote the portions of his column relevant to me:
...When they (theater reviews) are poorly written, they do a disservice to both the reader, who doesn't want to have the action spoiled by reading about it before he or she can see it, and the participants, who hates [sic] to see a review that spills the beans without educating the reader.
Educating the reader is what a review is all about -- afterwards they should be able to decide if they want to see the show or not, but they shouldn't feel like they've already seen it.
[He goes on for a while about the experience of being in this show, and how funny it was to him, and how they wanted it to be different, etc., etc.]
...Then along comes some punk college kid working for a daily newspaper in Provo who has been given free rein as a "drama critic" and picks apart our hard work in a long but lethargic piece that takes the easy way out by simply regurgitating our best bits in print and then taking pot shots at them, and I start to sense of the frustration and outrage felt by all those actors and directors who have called me in the past to complain about shoddily written reviews I have allowed to run in my newspapers.
I want to call the jerk up and spell it all out for him -- where he got it wrong, and where he just didn't get it at all. And then I want to chew him out for giving away so much of our creative efforts.
In a show this overdone, you can't surprise anyone with the ending. You have to make the storytelling itself sparkle if you are going to keep it interesting.
I also want to chew on him for saying mean things about my friends in the cast. I've spent a lot of time with these folks. When some wet-behind-the-ears neophyte takes a pot shot at them, he's taking shots at me, too.
Hey, it's easy to lose your objectivity in cases like these. (Obviously.) Fortunately, years of listening to complaints like these have helped to give me a thick skin. Otherwise, I might really be offended. (And he might resort to name-calling, if you can imagine.)
But the next time I'm asked to review a play, will I take a broader perspective to the task? Probably. At least, I promise not to give away all the good stuff.
(Marc Haddock, it turns out, was editor of NewUtah!, a chain of several small-town weekly newspapers in Utah County. NewUtah! was eventually purchased by the Pulitzer Corporation, which also owned The Daily Herald. When that happened, Marc Hadddock wrote a piece in NewUtah! trying to say the reason Pulitzer had bought the papers was that The Daily Herald was doing poorly, and Hickville weekly papers were on the rise. It should also be noted that Marc Haddock's wife was a reporter for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, and whenever a story broke in the Utah County area, Marc would call her and tip her off, thus freeing her from the normal responsibilities of having to cover your beat and find stories yourself.)
OK, let's address his complaints. His major thesis, aside from the fact that I am a jerk, seems to be that I gave away too many of the jokes in my review. I examined the reviews in The Daily Universe, the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune, and they all did the same thing. How can you give the reader a feel of what kind of humor to expect without mentioning a few of the specific jokes?
If he means my in-depth analysis of the inappropriately ripped-off Austin Powers and Linda Richman characters, I don't think my mentioning that they're in the show ruins any major "surprise" laughs. If they really expected to get a huge laugh just at the fact that the characters are THERE, and now I've ruined that surprise, then they're in worse shape than I thought. What the characters DO should be the funny part, not the mere fact that they exist. (In fact, though, I think that's the problem. They seemed to be hoping people would find the characters' mere presence funny, and not necessarily anything they actually said or did.)
He also says he wants to "chew on" me (I assume this is figurative) for "saying mean things about my friends." I am at a loss to determine which "mean things" he's referring to. Perhaps it is where I said that "Cory Bench is appropriately handsome, tan and toothy as Joseph, and he has a singing voice that is strong, even, and carries the show well." Or maybe it's the cruelty of saying that "Lisa Weight ... belts out everything she sings with gusto and finesse," and that she "plays the Narrator with a great deal of class and dignity." Or -- I know what it is! -- it must be where I said that "the brothers are all played with energy and vigor, many of them excellent singers and dancers," or where I expressed pleasure at the fact that Jacob -- played by Marc Haddock himself -- was done as a "robust" fellow, instead of old and stodgy. All of this is very insulting, as you can see.
Actually, I assume he means that I was being rude when I said Troy Williams' Austin Powers impression wasn't very good. As usual in Utah County, expressing an opinion that is negative is seen as being a rude and mean personal attack, and not merely a critic's view of a performance, which is what it's meant to be. Now, if I had said that Williams was a jerk for even trying the impression, or that he was a punk, or a wet-behind-the-ears young actor, well, THAT would be mean and uncalled for.
Obviously, Haddock is too close to the situation to have any objectivity. He says in his column that "I have grown to love this show, and this particular production." So it's no wonder he was bothered by my mixed review.
But I hardly see that as an excuse for the childish name-calling. He refers to me -- never by name, nor does he name the paper I write for, which seems kind of cowardly to me -- as a "punk college kid," a "jerk," and a "wet-behind-the-ears neophyte." He also claims that I took the "easy way out" in writing the review by merely stealing their jokes, putting them in the review, and then ripping on them -- in other words, I discussed specific aspects of the show, and then commented on them, like I was writing a REVIEW, or something.
I don't particularly mind being called a "punk" or a "jerk," for I have occasionally been both of those things, though not in this particular review; and besides, his use of ad hominum attacks only makes himself look irrational and emotional. What I take umbrage at is the "wet-behind-the-ears neophyte" thing. And it's not just because he used "neophyte" incorrectly (it means something "newly planted or newly converted; or, a new convert" according to Webster's). No, it's the implication that I'm new at this whole "reviewing" business, and that I don't know what I'm doing.
This review of "Joseph" was the 37th theater review I'd written for the Daily Herald. I'd also written more than 40 CD reviews, a dozen or so movie reviews, and even a book review. With nearly 100 reviews under my belt, I hardly think "wet-behind-the-ears" applies. Granted, the issue of whether I know what I'm talking about is still a valid one -- vast experience does not guarantee ability, as evidenced by Marc Haddock's long career in quasi-journalism -- but at least the issue of whether I'm new at the business should be settled.