'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' at the Palladium is a jubilant, joy-filled revival
Go go go Joseph! Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest work, Cinderella, is still yet to open thanks to the pingdemic, but his very first is up and running again. Laurence Connor's buoyant revival of Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Biblical musical charmed audiences back in 2019, and remains an absolute winner. If we can't go to the ball quite yet, at least we've got this technicolour dream.
Connor and choreographer JoAnn M Hunter, who also collaborated with Lloyd Webber on School of Rock and Cinderella, understand how to balance the heart and the sublime silliness of Joseph. Essentially a summer panto, it retains its DNA as a school show, with designer Morgan Large scaling up the classic nativity styling that transforms a child purely via a fake beard, a tea towel on their head, and the goodwill of the audience.
The theatrical inventiveness is delightful - from the camel bike riding to the toy sheep on skateboards and acrobatic goat (new Olympic events?) - as is the integration of children into the cast, including, on the night I was there, scene-stealing moppet Ethan Sokontwe as a tiny imperious Potiphar. That fits beautifully with the accessible, hyper-efficient storytelling, courtesy of an agile pastiche score and Rice's witty lyrics. It's effortless fun.
Yet the lead role requires an awful lot of effort. Connor's version substantially bulks up the Narrator; as well as guiding us through the story, she now plays several characters and leads the dance numbers. It was built around Sheridan Smith and her vaudevillian talents, but gets a very different spin from its new inhabitant, Alexandra Burke.
While Smith did too much mugging for my taste, Burke is almost the opposite: she largely plays it straight, treating the drama seriously. When the brothers misbehave, she really takes them to task, and her Jacob is genuinely grief-stricken. The former Strictly finalist is also a dynamite dancer, sharp and grounded, and particularly at home in the hip-hop-fuelled Megamix.
Yet there are also times where she's visibly battling the material. Rice's gags are a strain (lots of gesticulating with the hands, not enough enunciating), and there are some wobbly vocals in the fast sections. "A Pharaoh's Story" is more convincing, allowing Burke to let loose with vocal runs and big, belting notes, but that's a rare diva moment for the Narrator.
Still, many will likely warm to her inviting and sincere performance, while Joseph purists can, on a few shows, catch Linzi Hateley, who last played the Narrator 30 years ago - and is somehow better than ever. It's a cheering sign that this role is now a boon to actresses of all ages, and I hope we see plenty of creative casting in future.
Hateley's early 1990s Joseph was Jason Donovan, who is back hamming it up as the Elvis-esque Pharaoh. It's a generously self-deprecating turn; he groans when he has to stand up, knees cracking. And Jac Yarrow, the drama graduate who, like the title character, became a star thanks to Joseph's dreams, returns with a more mature performance and superbly controlled vocals. His "Close Every Door" is just as emotive, but with added power.
Steffan Lloyd Evans and Bobby Windebank are standouts as, respectively, brothers Reuben and Simeon, the athletic chorus excel during Hunter's high-voltage hoedown and can-can numbers, and John Cameron's orchestrations, jauntily delivered, are like a vibrant new lick of paint. A few problems remain, though: the calypso is simply irredeemable, and there's a dismaying tendency to use the female ensemble as sexy set dressing.
However, from its opening minutes, in which the Narrator begins her fireside tale for the children, there's a lovely emphasis on the pleasures of collective storytelling. It's just the tonic after our long separation. That, and being part of a full-capacity theatre audience all up and dancing to the Megamix. Go go go join the party.
Photo credit: Jason Donovan and Jac Yarrow in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Photo by Tristram Kenton)
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