New production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat dazzles
In situations like this, I find it usually comes down to the King.
Things will be rolling along, as they do in the new Drayton production of "Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, " with everyone caught up in the singing, the dancing, the whimsicality, and then someone will appear on stage dressed as Elvis Presley and the whole thing will rev into overdrive.
"Well this dream has got me all shook up, " croons the kingly impersonator in this high-spirited take on the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice hit Broadway musical.
"Treat me nice and tell me what it means / Hey, hey, hey Joseph / Won't you tell poor old Pharaoh / What does this crazy dream mean?/ Oh yeah."
I don't know what it is - the satirical impact? the cultural ubiquity? - but every time Elvis thrusts his pelvis in his bell-bottomed, jewel encrusted, high collared jumpsuit, people are rivetted.
Not that this show needs help holding the audience's attention.
From the first song to the last, Drayton's 2017 season opener - about fraternal squabbles in the ancient land of Canaan - is like a runaway train of relentless good cheer, mowing down bad feelings like Democrats at a Trump rally as it wiggles and dances its way into your heart.
"I couldn't stop moving!" I heard one patron exclaim as the curtain went down.
And to think it started out as a children's bible story adapted by Webber back when he was a fledgling theatre impresario for whom the ascension to Sir-hood was still decades away.
Bold, bright and musically adventurous, this engaging story about jealous sibs who turn on their doting father's favoured youngest son is like the Jackson 5 or Osmonds story in reverse: instead of embarking on a lucrative solo career, leaving his less talented brothers behind, Joseph is kicked out of the family and sold to Egyptian slaves.
"We have never liked him / All that much before!" croons the vengeful brood, threatened by their father's bestowment of a multi-coloured frock that gives Joseph the look of a strutting rainbow peacock.
"And now this coat / Has got our goat / We feel life is unfair."
It's comical in spots, energetic in others and never less than engaging.
And get this: there's hardly any dialogue.
The entire production rises and falls on the wit and elocution of Webber's songs, and the choreography and vocal dexterity of the performers carrying them out.
Fortunately, in this case, both are perfect.
When I say perfect, I mean for the doting audiences who aren't here to see the latest Jacobean tragedy or Stratford's production of "The Komagata Maru Incident."
That's not an insult. There's room for everyone in the Southern Ontario theatre scene.
And by catering to a populist audience for whom the concept of the-at-uh is rife with elitist snobbery, Drayton - with its old-fashioned murder mysteries, broad comedies and rollicking musicals - is not only a gateway to more advanced offerings at Shaw and Stratford, but quality entertainment in its own right.
Not to mention that for a bible story about attempted fratricide, it really moves.
From reggae to country and western to spandexed disco to Parisian balladry, the songs - sprinkled with comedic intrusions and the exuberant warblings of a 19-member children's chorus plucked from the surrounding community - are like a musical primer on the second half of the 20th century.
Front and centre is Danielle Wade, the pitch-perfect belter hand-picked by Webber for a Toronto production of "The Wizard of Oz" after she won the 2012 Canadian reality show competition, "Over The Rainbow."
Seguing into the role of musical narrator, she projects an easy, effortless charm that never fails to captivate.
As Joseph, former Canadian Tenor Jamie McKnight is both vocally flawless and strategically understated, a charming victim of circumstance who projects a winsome vulnerability and sly wit as he's buffeted from one formative experience to another.
But really, it's the bit players who steal the show.
Sheldon Davis, who plays the rich Egyptian Potiphar as an over-aged toddler with a teddy bear, adds a welcome dose of comic absurdity.
Mike Jackson, whose shimmering Elvis parody steals every scene he's in.
Justin Bott and Jeremy Carver-James, whose Paris-themed "Those Canaan Days" and reggaefied "Benjamin Calypso" are show-stopping highlights.
Mark Harapiak, whose satirical take as Joseph's vengeful eldest brother generates laughs when he turns from despondent mourner to joyful zealot the minute his grieving father exits the stage.
"There's one more angel in heaven, " he croons with hilarious fake sincerity after staging his brother's death. "There's one more star in the sky / Joseph, we'll never forget you / It's tough but we're gonna get by."
Credit not only veteran director Max Reimer and choreographer Gino Berti, who bring the requisite light touch to the proceedings, but Alex Mustakas, artistic director of Drayton Entertainment, who oversees seven theatres in southern Ontario with a sure-footedness that is the envy of industry insiders.
With a raft of populist crowd-pleasers - including the upcoming Elvis-themed musicals, "Million Dollar Quartet" and "All Shook Up" - this upstart Ontario theatre chain may not have the artistic cache of, say, the highfalutin Stratford Festival.
But as a theatrical machine that doesn't skimp on quality and has become one of the country's biggest success stories, it could teach Shakespeare's home on the Avon a few lessons.
"Joseph, " like many Drayton productions, has almost completely sold out its current Dunfield run, and will leapfrog between the company's other theatres throughout the summer.
The prognosis is the same for sister productions like "Singin' In The Rain, " "Million Dollar Quartet" and "Marathon of Hope."
Why? Because Drayton follows three general rules:
(1) Entertainment before artistry.
(2) Know your audience.
(3) Bow to The King.
"Now, Joseph, here's the punch line, " croons the hip swivelling Pharoah with the bearing of an overripe tomato. "It's really gonna blow your mind / Flip your lid!"
I forget what the punch line was.
Like most of the audience, my lid was too busy being flipped by the prospect of an Elvis-like pharaoh bumping and grinding in ancient Egypt.
– Waterloo Region Record
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat
May 17 to June 4 at Drayton Festival Theatre
June 7 to 24 at Huron Country Playhouse
August 10 to September 3 at King’s Warf Theatre
Photo credits: Jamie McKnight as Joseph with Danielle Wade as Narrator and Ensemble in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Photographer: Hilary Gauld Camilleri