Julian Eaves reviews Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat now playing at the London Palladium.
50 years on since it first launched the incredible musical writing careers of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, this is a show that has earned a remarkable place in the hearts of the British public. No better testament to that could be imagined than the scene last night of almost crazed adulation outside the flagship of theatrical entertainment in the country. Argyll Street was packed from end to end with ardent theatergoers and celebrity-spotters as we arrived for the first night of a brand new production of this perennial favourite: even before we got into the theatre, our excitement had reached the bananas level.
But none of that could have prepared us for what we were about to experience. Director Laurence Connor, having refreshed many of the longest running shows in London and New York, has here not just done that: he has entirely rediscovered a folk-pop-opera that is complex, clever, involving and beautiful. Taking the biblical story of Jacob and his twelve sons – the adored golden boy of the title and the eleven also-rans – Connor has found in the libretto a brilliantly crafted and sensitive examination of character and destiny. The score, in the energetic hands of John Rigby, and with stupendous dance arrangements by Sam Davis and dazzlingly vivid and evocatively alert orchestrations John Cameron, is a great deal more than a string of pastiche numbers book-ended by the hit tune, ‘Any Dream Will Do’. It is a world all of its own. Lloyd Webber’s gift for melody and his even stronger feeling for great theatre have never seemed stronger, and Rice’s lyrics are masterpieces of clarity, wit and variety. This isn’t just a show for kids. It isn’t merely an interesting piece by a pair of writers who went to to create better things. This is one of their best things.
To realise this vision, the designer Morgan Large (who has been carving out a name for himself over the past few years in a succession of wonderfully accomplished projects that started small and have rapidly got larger and larger) is here employed to employ his visual genius on the gargantuan stage of the Palladium. He does so with an intellectual rigour, panache and sense of fun that stimulates all levels of your mind and senses, while remaining – even at its most opulent – as simple and innocent as possible. To this end, he enjoins Cezanne’s cone, sphere and triangle, with a goodly few boxes, to give harmonic unity to the three worlds of the story: the Narrator’s; Canaan; Egypt.
Kicking things off, Sheridan Smith – all at ease in contemporary street-wear with a pile of blonde curls on one side of her head (Richard Mawbey does the wigs, hair and make-up) – is a joy in this part. She has a fuller figure and looks and sounds really happy: her perfectly judged flirting with the audience is knowing and intimate, creating just the right kind of bond, and she has a magical rapport with the many excellent children in this cast. Her voice is in marvelous form. Her opening number gets this right, and introduces the terrifically protean choreography of the American, Joann M Hunter, which builds and grows and changes and develops with each twist and turn of the plot, always sympathetic to the thrilling score, and ranging in references from Michael Kidd to pop promos.
However, it is in the presence of brand new newcomer, Jac Yarrow, who – incredibly – makes his professional stage debut here, in the lead role in a major revival of a major show in the West End. That is a dream. And just that quality of honest-to-goodness idealism infuses his every word and gesture as he goes on his journey. Along the way, he scores some notable triumphs, especially the Fidelio-like prison aria, ‘Close Every Door’, a number that won him a standing ovation.
The ensemble around him are every bit as electrifying and compelling as story-tellers. The one weak link in the chain, sadly, appears in the second act with the much awaited of another big name drawing audiences to the theatre, a former Joseph himself, and international recording and television star, Jason Donovan. He still looks physically impressive, and – togged out in yards of fake gold and shades – his pharaonic impersonation of Elvis ‘the King’ Presley moves well. The only trouble is his voice. Unlike the crystal-clear articulation heard absolutely everywhere else – including from the sassy child actor doing Potiphar – I for one did not understand a single thing Donovan sang. With a show as immensely well known as this, that may not matter much, but I have never seen it before and haven’t played through the score in decades.
Apart from that, there is nothing in the show to criticise. The band of 14 plays sensationally well – you will not forget the tight, lush, meaty balance of the brass section, and Huw Clement Evans’ cor anglais solos will haunt your dreams; this orchestra makes a big sound in Gareth Owen’s nearly flawless sound design. Ben Cracknell’s lighting is heavenly, too, melding showbiz glitz and the truth of art. In this lifetime, or at least in this theatre season, you won’t get a better vision of paradise.