Theatre Review: “Joseph” at Beef and Boards

 Rick Desloge sings "Close Every Door" in "Joseph" at Beef and Boards - photo by Julie Curry

Last Sunday afternoon I drove to Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre on the northwest side of Indianapolis (near the Pyramids) to see “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics.) 

I have had more experience with this show than with any other in my short career as a theatre blogger.  I wrote about the Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s production for Indiana Auditions in 2007 and about the Hendricks County Civic Theatre’s production here on Indy Theatre Habit in 2008.  B&B’s is the first fully professional production I’ve seen in the Indianapolis area, but I also saw the professional touring production that starred Donny Osmond when it was in Chicago around 1994 or 1995.*

I confess that I went to B&B’s production just because I like to see every B&B show if I can, and because I knew that Scot Greenwell was going to play one of the brothers.  I loved his work as Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors” last year at the Indianapolis Civic Theatre.  This is his first time to be in a Beef and Boards show.

However, I wasn’t particularly excited about seeing “Joseph” again because there were so many other, new-to-me shows around town that I wanted to see…until I got to the theatre and the rainbow children came on stage to frolic while the orchestra played the overture.  The children and teens in this production are all cuties and the musicians reminded me of all the different, fun songs in this show.  “Hopie,” I said to myself, “you drag yourself whining every time but you LOVE this show!” Suddenly I knew there was no place else I’d rather be that afternoon.  I settled in and felt lucky to be there.

A Word about the Seating

I had not been able to attend Media Night so I did not have one of the officially best seats in the house (i.e., a center aisle seat) the way I usually do.  However, I delighted in the seat I had at one of the twofer tables on the side because I was so close to the stage.  I saw the performers mostly in profile, but they were RIGHT THERE, doing their creative thing just a yard or two away from me!  I could hear every nuance of their individual voices, feel vicariously their individual leaps and twirls, and see every rich tassel or bead on their costumes.  I know I missed some of the “big picture” effects that I would have gotten in a center seat, so I won’t pretend to be able to comment on them, but if I thought you would be willing to read it, I would write a book about how cool the costumes are for this show and how committed to excellence each individual cast member is.  At the end of the show, the group’s high-to-begin-with level of energy is even higher! 

I don’t know how they do it.  I imagine they all pull on terry robes and leg warmers and collapse into little puddles of goo backstage when the show is over, but they don’t show that part to the audience.

Anyway, I also love getting a side seat once in a while because it lets me sneak glances at the rest of the house and enjoy the reactions of my fellow audience members without drawing attention to myself.    There were lots of smiles during this show.

Why I Love “Joseph”

The story, in case you don’t already know, is the one from the book of Genesis from the Bible’s Old Testament, more or less.  It is a deliciously layered story about…well, like the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son, my understanding of it deepens every time I read, hear, or see it.  But basically, it is about a young dreamer named Joseph and his eleven brothers.  They go through a series of trials and adventures that test their faith in God, their understanding of authority, and their loyalty to each other.

The musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber takes an already good story and highlights its humor and pathos, plus its healing qualities.  You forget that you’re experiencing “a Bible story.”  You’re experiencing a story about life.  You laugh a lot, and you cry a bit, and you feel like giving thanks for all of it at the end.

I also like this musical because it includes many different kinds of music.  As B&B’s media person Patricia Rettig says, “It features a rainbow of musical styles, from rock and country to pop and calypso.”

And finally, I like it because it features a storyteller (the Narrator), telling the story to a group of children ostensibly, but really to the whole community.  The presence of the children gives stuffy adults permission to listen and enjoy the story themselves.

This Particular Production – the Performance Elements

The narrator in B&B’s production is played by Amanda Lawson.  She and the show’s director, Doug King, made different choices for this role than were made in the other three productions I’ve seen.  I seem to recall that Donny Osmond’s Narrator (and I’m sorry, I can not tell you who she was except that she was the alternate, not the headliner) played it as someone who was almost in competition with Joseph for the audience’s attention.  Marni Lemons, in the Indianapolis Civic Theatre’s production, definitely gave the role a warm, motherly spin.  Susie Harloff, for the Hendricks Civic Theatre production, made the Narrator very cool and cabaret-night-clubby.

I enjoyed each of those portrayals, but I also really admired the humility in Amanda Lawson’s portrayal for Beef and Boards.  When she is singing to the audience, her voice is beautiful and the words are easy to understand.   The rest of the time, she blends back into the woodwork until we or the characters need her again to further the story or to make it clearer.  The story is not about her; she’s the storyteller.  She knows how and when to get out of the way of our experience of the story.

The Children’s Ensemble at the performance I saw included Emily Miller, Destiny Budd, Eric Best, Paige Brown, Noah Bush, Adrianna Johnson, Molly Miller, Gwendolyn Stout, Jill Tirinnanzi, and Alexandra Young.  A different Children’s’ Ensemble will take over from October 22-November 6, and then a third one from November 7-November 22.

Rick Desloge stars in the title role.  His portrayal of Joseph is simultaneously vulnerable and powerful.  He perfectly captures the complex adolescent coming-of-age aspect of this story.  His rendition of “Close Every Door” gave me chills and moved me to tears.  (And by the way, I know that those phrases are cliches, but “chills and tears” are what happened, so I’m using the words.)

Douglas E. Stark is a hoot as both the naïve, weepy father, Jacob, and the blustery billionaire, Potiphar.  I also loved the sincere tenderness from both sides in Jacob’s reunion with Joseph at the end.

Potiphar’s competently sexy Secretary is played by Meghan Walsh.  Karen Webb is intoxicating as his dangerously sexy wife, Mrs. Potiphar.

Speaking of sexy, in the “Those Canaan Days” number, the two Apache Dancers are played by Jennifer Ladner and Eric Allen Smith.  In the performance I saw, their graceful pas de deux  turned smoldering.  In the throws of their suprressed desire for each other, his turban came off by mistake and revealed his gorgeous, red-blond hair.  They kept dancing, though, and he finally just  tore his headdress away completely.  Oh, my.  My program doubled as my fan then.  I think they should consider doing it that way every time. 

Well, no, not really.  But if I ever get around to writing a romance novel set in the theatre world, I’m going to find a way to put that dance and that reveal in it.

Any time I see “Joseph,” I never know which brother is which – other than Joseph, of course – unless I already know the actors from other shows or until I figure it out from my program.  In this production, Scot Greenwell does a great job as brother Issachar, as I expected.  I know from his Facebook updates that he is also in the B&B’s current production for children, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” which opens this weekend. 

Sam Weber plays Asher in “Joseph,” aka the brother who sings wistfully and hilariously with his father about “Those Canaan Days” when he and his brothers and their families still had enough to eat.  Since Sam gave the curtain talk for this show, I know that he is also playing “Jack” in the children’s show.  Something about Sam’s easy, sweetly friendly rapport with the mostly-adult audience last Sunday afternoon made me think that he probably has even better rapport with child audiences.  I wish I had time to see “Jack and the Beanstalk,” too.

John Vessels does a good job as Zebulun, but he is laugh-out-loud funny as the understated Butler.  David Purdy is funny, too, slapping his floury belly as the Baker.  He also portrays brother Napthali. 

Peter Scharbrough is a delight as the sorrowful/gleeful Rueben, the brother who sings with his rich voice to his father that even though Joseph is gone, there is now “One More Angel in Heaven.”  The wives that join Rueben and the remaining brothers in that number include Kristen Noonan, Amanda Brantley, and Kate Goetzinger.

Dante’ Murray is Judah, the brother who sings the laughing-cause-I’m-scared “Benjamin Calypso” song to plead for clemency for his youngest brother (Danny Kingston) and all of them, including Rex Wolfley as brother Dan and Jamie Westberry as brother Gad.

I’ve saved Sean Blake for last because yes, yes, he does a good job as brother Levi, but as the Pharaoh, he is a show-stopping riot!  Also a complete surprise.  I guess this is a spoiler, but I just have to tell you he that he makes you think of James Brown, NOT Elvis, which is the way this role was played in the other three productions I saw.  Even if you have seen “Joseph” a hundred times, I bet you would be glad you went to see B&B’s production just for this one fresh portrayal.

This Particular Production – Direction and Design Elements

But actually, the whole show seems fresh.  Familiar, but fresh.

I also loved Beef and Boards’ production, directed and choreographed by Doug King, because even though it is done on a small stage there is no skimping.  I heard about another dinner theatre in Indiana that cut costs and saved space by using a cardboard cut-out of most of the brothers instead of live actors.  Two or three live brothers would sing and pull the cut-out of the other brothers around in a wagon on the small stage.  The B&B stage does get pretty crowded with twelve live brothers dancing enthusiastically with their wives.  And the rainbow children listening and dancing down in front of the stage have to make sure they don’t get flattened when the motorized stage extends forward a bit.  But for me, all that just made everyone’s unerring execution of Doug King’s clever solutions to the choreography-in-a-small space puzzle all the more satisfying.

Speaking of clever, I finally stopped writing down the witticisms that I was enjoying in the visuals of this piece because there were so many.  And anyway, if you go to this show, you’ll have more fun if I’ve left the witty details for you to discover on your own.  I’ll just mention that the costumes were designed by…

Well, I would have sworn that I had read a costume credit somewhere, but now I can not find it in either my program or my press kit.  Hmm.

Anyway, whoever designed the costumes, they are exceptional. 

(I’m going to go ahead and post this review as is because I am approaching my self-imposed deadline, but when I find out who designed the costumes, I’ll revise this post.)

(Update:  B&B’s media relations person, Patricia Rettig, was kind enough to give me some answers to my costume questions.  Here is an excerpt from her email:

The reason we do not credit the costumes was a direct request from our resident costume designer, Brian Horton. He did not want to take credit for the costumes, because not every single costume in the show is his. I’ve therefore been referring to him as the “costume coordinator” for this show, even though a great many of the costumes ARE his…
 
…while he did not want his name in the program, it would be appropriate to refer to Brian Horton as the “costume coordinator” for Joseph.”

Thanks for the explanation, Patricia, and great costume coordination, Brian!)

Michael Layton designed the set.  It is very cool, too.  It makes exceptionally good use of the turntable portion of B&B’s stage, turning it into, among other places, a golden pyramid.  Michael gives us humorous glimpses inside its various rooms.   I also enjoyed the subtle textures that he added to several scenes through his lighting design.  I appreciated the quick-changing spot lights in “Those Canaan Days,” too.  They helped me know who was singing.

Elizabeth Stark is the stage manager.  She has a lot(!) to coordinate in this show, which was ably technical directed by Bill Mollencupp, and I did enjoy all of the big razzle-dazzle, especially at the end, but again, what I loved most about this production was the exquisite attention to the “smaller” details.  I loved, for example, that two of the rainbow children discreetly shake buzzard stick puppets from behind the edge of the tent in the “Those Canaan Days” scene.

Daniel Heeselbrock’s sound design was flawless as usual, and the five-piece orchestra, conducted up in their loft by music director Kristy Templet, sounded just right as usual, too.  The orchestra consists of Kristy on keyboard, Neil Broeker on woodwinds, David Coleson on trumpet, Tim Kelly on percussion, and Terry Woods on keyboard.

A Reassuring Word about Cheese, Crackers, and the Economy

Chef Odell Ward’s comfort food buffet this time included a brilliant magenta dish that was new to me. The label over the warming tray said “Braised red cabbage.”  I don’t think I had ever eaten magenta food of any kind before, but it is one of my favorite colors, and the food itself was yummy.

At some point during my meal, I thought, “Hey!  What about the famous Beef and Boards tangy cheese and crackers?”  I didn’t have any on my table, and when I looked around, I didn’t see any on anyone else’s tables, either.

When my server, Ashley, came by to show me the dessert choices, I said, “This is going to sound…I don’t know, greedy or silly or something, because I have plenty of food here, but have you stopped serving cheese and crackers before the buffet?”

She leaned close and whispered, “We don’t serve them at the matinee shows.”

“Oh!” I whispered back.  “Whew!  I thought maybe you had stopped serving them because of the economy or something.  The bowl is always so generous.  I bet you throw a lot of that cheese away?”

“Oh, no,” Ashley said.  “We’re actually doing okay in that respect.  Doug (Doug Stark, B&B’s producing director) has been taking preventative measures, cutting back on overtime, things like that.

“But it’s funny you should ask about the cheese and crackers,” Ashley went on.  “You’d be surprised how little of it we throw away.  People eat it right up.  One time I had a pregnant lady at one of my tables at a matinee.  She really, really wanted some of our cheese.  I went back to the kitchen and said, ‘Chef, she has a craving!’ but Chef said no, because if he made one exception, everyone would want some.”

“That makes sense,” I said, suddenly wondering if she thought I was trying to get some.  I had just been curious!

“But we sell the cheese in our gift shop,” Ashley continued.  “Big tubs and smaller tubs.  That pregnant lady bought a small tub and brought it back to her table and I snuck her some crackers to go with it.”

I laughed, then.  I bet that customer was very grateful for the compromise!

I am grateful to Ashley for answering my questions and for her all-round courteous service.  At one point I was thumbing a pre-show tweet for my @IndyTheatre account on Twitter.com into my iPhone and Ashley said, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but…” and then told me it was my turn to visit the buffet.  I really appreciated that she didn’t assume I was playing a game or something and just start talking at me.

Box Office

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” runs at the Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre through November 22, 2009.  Last Sunday, the house was almost full even though it was only the early matinee on opening weekend, so if you are thinking of seeing this show, I would make your reservation as soon as possible.  Please call 317-8720-9664 or visit www.beefandboards.com.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

*One of the press releases in my press kit – some of which you can read for yourself under the “media” tab on the Beef and Boards website – says that the director of this current production, Doug King, was a performer with Donny Osmond in the show that I saw in Chicago years ago!  Small world, isn’t it.

(Photo above of Rick Desloge singing “Close Every Door” was taken by Julie Curry.)

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