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November 29, 2014
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arts & leisure

A Night at the Theatre: Forestburgh’s “Joseph” is a dream of biblical proportions

Michael Starr and Jessica Wagner, center, bring the biblical story of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" to life at the Forestburgh Theatre.
Contributed photos


The Forestburgh Playhouse (FBP) knows its way around a musical and the theatre’s sparkling production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” illustrates the point nicely. It doesn’t hurt to have a hummable score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, along with a fast-paced book, i.e. the script, and clever, clever lyrics by Tim Rice, the dynamic duo behind “Evita” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Like the latter, “Joseph” is based on a biblical story—an imaginative retelling of the young soothsayer, his "coat of many colors", dastardly brothers and being sold into slavery, followed by his rise to fame as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. While decidedly tongue-in-cheek, at the heart of the story a cautionary tale still beats and by the time the curtain fell, I was in love with the show and its message. As is often the case, the intimate barn theatre space itself is part of the experience, and its size allows some productions to glitter in a shower of creative set and lighting design (by Trevor Frederiksen and Michael O’Connor, respectively).

Gretchen Halle’s costuming was fresh and colorful (pun intended) and the small pit of musicians produced a big, pitch-perfect sound (thank you!) under the very capable guidance of conductor Kevin Lawson.

Director/choreographer Dann Dunn returns to the playhouse for a fourth season and his experience as an award-winning musical theatre helmsman serves him well, supported by an equally talented ensemble that follows his lead admirably, as they approach each wildly different number with strong vocals and nimble moves. Fast paced and funny (with a few touching moments sprinkled in) the show is short and sweet and the performers were clearly having as much fun as the audience, which really propelled the production throughout.

With 24 songs in total, “Joseph” is more music than spoken word, and relies heavily on its narrator (songstress Jessica Wagner) to relate the story to the children's choir, comprised of 11 adorable, local kids getting a chance to strut their stuff with the cast. In my eyes (and to my ears) Wagner can do no wrong. She has breathed vivid life into several memorable characters at the FBP in past seasons, and her vocal prowess continues to enthrall in “Joseph.” Wagner has amazing (pun intended) skills that allow her to whisper, belt and rock-on in any genre, a unique talent that is put to the test by virtue of the vocal calisthenics that Webber is famous for.

Not missing a beat, Michael Starr (Joseph) keeps up with Wagner note for note, as the beleaguered brother thrown to the wolves (in this case, a goat) and left to his own devices, first wallowing in prison and then feted for his ability to interpret dreams for the Pharaoh in Egypt. Starr has a winning stage presence and delivers a layered performance, singing and dancing a fine line between humor and pathos as the story unfolds. Both Wagner and Starr lead the way through the desert, but “Joseph” is an ensemble show and the entire cast must be (and is) up to the task in order for the production to work. With 11 brothers and a dad (Steve Davis), Joseph's story is testosterone-driven and the men shine a bit more brightly than the women, but not by much. Both John Jeffords (Reuben) and Russel Mernagh (Naphtali) had standout moments on stage and raised the roof with their respective numbers, supported by the strong choral work of the company. “Joseph” has just the right combination with the sum of its parts being equal to the whole, and its bright pacing creates an evening at the theatre that is sure to please. For reservations visit www.fbplayhouse.org, or call 845/794-1194.