A new 'Joseph' is cute, overdone Review: Towson State production deserves applause for trying something new with "Dreamcoat," but one has to wonder about the efficacy of staging live theater as a video.

July 11, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

One of the most obvious differences between television and theater is that theater is live. So, what to make of a theatrical production presented as if it were a video?

That's the concept director and choreographer Tom Polum has layered over "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Towson State University's Maryland Arts Festival.

And, while Polum is to be applauded for attempting something new with this Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical -- whose most recent national tour has come through Baltimore twice in the last two years -- the approach he has chosen is ultimately cuter than it is effective.

The production begins by borrowing the road show's cleverest innovation -- the use of a large on-stage children's choir. In fact, the credits of several of these talented children include appearances at the Lyric Opera House with one of the local choirs the touring production recruited in each city.

At Towson, however, the children get to do more -- beginning with establishing the production's context as a giant video.

After the kids -- 22 in all -- dash on stage waving and jabbering, one of them inserts an oversized videotape into the platform of designer Gregg Hillmar's two-level set, which is topped with a large screen. Then another child pushes the button on an over-sized remote control, and "Joseph" truly begins, with Libby Tomlinson-Gensler's Narrator introducing the Biblical story.

Although Tomlinson-Gensler possesses the show's most stunning singing voice and presence, the production also features other impressive performances.

The novelty numbers by Lloyd Webber and Rice showcase three of Joseph's 11 jealous brothers, and each of the three is depicted with comedy and style -- Levi by Richardson Jones in the country-western "One More Angel in Heaven"; Asher by Brad Dunnells in the French cafe number, "Those Canaan Days"; and Napthali by Eric Simms in the island-flavored "Benjamin's Calypso." In addition, the choral work of 11 is mellifluous and strong.

In the role of Joseph is Douglas Bayne, a handsome, smooth-voiced singer and dancer who holds the title Mr. Gay Maryland U.S.A. Though Bayne conveys some of Joseph's requisite charisma, at times he seems to be posing instead of fully in character.

At least one of these instances is accentuated by Polum's staging. Near the end of the first act, the imprisoned Joseph steps outside his cell and stands at the edge of the stage belting "Close Every Door," a number that should illuminate the character's humility and meekness instead of the performer's showbiz flair.

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" was Lloyd Webber and Rice's first collaboration, originally composed in 1967 as a 20-minute pop cantata for a British boys' choir. Since then, it's had various larger incarnations, the largest exemplified by the touring production, which filled the stage with 30 professional actors and 50 local children.

The Maryland Arts Festival's version isn't quite that large, but it reflects the bigger-is-better mentality and then some, thanks to the additional device of presenting the musical as a gigantic video.

Oddly, however, the production doesn't follow through on this video idea. A cameraman and assorted crew members make a brief appearance in the first act, and after that, the notion of Joseph as media superstar is essentially dropped. The kids don't even remove the videotape at the end.

And in the final analysis, adorable as it may be, the whole video framework proves a bit much for a show that is already in adorable overload, thanks to singing camels, an Elvis-impersonator Pharoah, and other built-in cutesy touches.

It also seems a rather sad commentary on live theater that a stage show is deemed more accessible if it is disguised as a video.

'Dreamcoat'

Where: Maryland Arts Festival, Towson State University

When: 8: 15 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and July 18 and 25; matinees at 2: 15 p.m. July 14 and 21. Through July 27

Tickets: $18

Call: (410) 830-2787

Pub Date: 7/11/96

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