ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tolstoy listed the story of Joseph and his brothers from the book of Genesis as one of the greatest stories of all time. As the culminating story in a book of great stories, it is especially profound, poignant and powerful and it is not at all surprising that it influenced the great novelist so deeply.
Back in the 1960s, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber crafted the biblical story into a musical, which is now playing at Musical Theatre Southwest.
Knowing the story well, I was curious and even excited to see how it would take form as a musical, especially as it comes from the same duo who gave us “Jesus Christ Superstar,” another biblically-based musical and one I love very much.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed. “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” transforms one of the greatest stories in world literature into a silly farce. All the depth and beauty of the original has been siphoned out and in its place is superficial parody and camp.
Jacob had 12 sons (the 12 tribes of Israel) and Joseph was his favorite. The spoiled child inspired envy in his brothers, who planned to murder him but instead sold him into slavery. The poignant moment when the brothers tell their father that Joseph is dead is here turned into a joke, with the brothers incongruously transformed into a bunch of cowboys singing a country and western parody, “There’s One More Angel in Heaven.” “Joseph” is an odd mix of musical styles, as though the composers were bereft of ideas and grabbed for anything they could find. Later in the show, the brothers will transform incongruously again, this time into Frenchmen singing a Parisian cabaret number, “Those Canaan Days.”
When Joseph rebuffs the sexual advances of his master Potiphar’s wife, he winds up in prison (she falsely accuses him of attempted rape). In this version Potiphar is played as an over-the-top flamboyant gay man whose attraction to Joseph exceeds his wife’s. Don’t look for subtlety in this show.
Joseph is released from prison and made prime minister of Egypt when he interprets Pharaoh’s dream and saves the country from the effects of a seven-year famine. Pharaoh describes his dream in a rockabilly imitation of Elvis Presley, complete with screaming, star-struck women.
Joseph’s starving brothers come to Egypt pleading to buy food from Pharaoh’s ample stores and don’t recognize their brother in his position of authority. While he could have exacted revenge for their treachery, Joseph is instead filled with compassion and the family is reunited. In this scene we get an Afro-Caribbean number, “Benjamin Calypso,” rounding out the incredibly eclectic assortment of musical styles that make up this show.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is filled with incident, as Joseph’s fortunes rise and fall and rise again. Rice and Webber streamline the story, sprinting from start to finish in less than an hour and a half.
As usual, the talent on display at MTS is first-rate. Unfortunately it’s wasted on this puerile show.
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is playing through April 29 at Musical Theatre Southwest, 6320 Domingo Road NE. For reservations, go to musicaltheatresw.com or call 265-9119.