Local children will sing onstage with cast of 'Joseph' A 'DREAMCOAT' COME TRUE

January 15, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The Bible story is known as "Joseph and his coat of many colors." For the musical stage, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice renamed it "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." But the production launching a national tour in Baltimore this week should probably be called "Joseph and the cast of many kids."

That's because, in addition to a touring cast of 30 professional actors, the show features a "Joseph" choir made up of approximately 50 local children. In Baltimore, two choirs were selected in auditions held two months ago -- the Charm City Choir and the Towson Children's Chorus.

The children are 9 to 14 years old and range in experience from Christopher T. Knudsen, a ninth-grader at Towson High School who has appeared in a few children's shows, to Abigail Margulis, a 10th-grader at the Baltimore School for the Arts who has a professional agent and an array of credits.

Christopher, 14, plays trombone in three school groups and only recently has become "a little more interested" in drama. He says he wanted to be in "Joseph" because "I thought it would be a lot of fun, and it would just be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing."

On the other hand, Abigail, also 14, is determined to have a career as an actress. She's already rehearsing for a dinner theater production in March. Though "Joseph" is the biggest production she's been in, Abigail is setting her sights beyond its two-week Baltimore engagement. "I'm hoping to get a national tour," she says. "I have a thrill when I get on stage, kind of a high. When I hear the overture start playing, and the lights go on, there's a big rush. I can see myself on that big [Lyric Opera House] stage and that whole audience, and it's the rush I get."

"Joseph" originated as a 20-minute pop cantata written for a British school choir in 1967 -- which helps explain the philosophy behind including local children in the production. Fifteen years later, it grew into a full-length Broadway production. (Coincidentally, that version was co-produced by two Baltimoreans -- Susan R. Rose and Gail Berman -- whose investors included 25 other Baltimoreans.)

In 1991, Lloyd Webber produced a larger-scale version at the London Palladium. That production was re-staged on Broadway last season, and now it's on a two-year tour, starring Sam Harris and opening at the Lyric Tuesday.

"Andrew and I were very concerned that the sort of innocence of the show, the simplicity of the show, shouldn't disappear beneath the glitz. In this respect, the children were key," says Steven Pimlott, the show's London-based director. "Joseph" is the first commercial production for Pimlott, who has spent most of his career at such government-subsidized companies as the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"The show was originally conceived for children to do, so we decided to put, at the center of the show, this body of 50 children who, I hope, root it in some way -- in a way that's immediate and accessible," he says. "We didn't really want trained children because the whole thing was to try to remember the simple origins of the thing, and you get a naivete and a freshness from children who are not show-business trained."

Lining up and rehearsing the children's choirs in the tour cities is a logistical feat. During the musical's seven-month Broadway run, four choirs rotated performances in the eight shows each week. On the road, a single "Joseph" choir is created by combining choirs selected at a " 'Dreamcoat' Challenge" audition; this aggregate of roughly 50 children appears in every performance.

In Baltimore, the tryouts were held in November. The Towson Children's Chorus and the Charm City Choir were selected from among choirs with a total of more than 250 children.

Both winning choirs were created, at least in part, with "Joseph" in mind. For the Charm City Choir, "Joseph" is the sole raison d'etre. The impetus for this choir came from Charles Shubow, a local attorney whose 14-year-old daughter, Britt, has been performing since she was 5 and who wanted to add "Joseph" to her resume. Shubow contacted Lauretta Dorsey Young, a professional opera singer and voice instructor at the Baltimore School for the Arts. She, in turn, conducted individual auditions that resulted in a choir of 30 children.

"I think these kids are outstanding," says Young, whose experience with children also includes founding the former Columbia Children's Choir and teaching at Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts. "They have all the energy. They see themselves in the show. They have personality, and they're very quick. I love working with them."

Her only initial reservation was that they might have an excess of energy. Learning to pace themselves is one of several disciplines Young says she has tried to instill. Another is how to take care of their voices.

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