A simple wooden chair sitting in a spotlight greets the audience arriving for this much-anticipated Joseph. It’s a seat for the narrator, sure, but it also serves as a reminder of the humble beginnings of this cheeky, charming musical, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice four decades ago for a school concert. And as the evening wears on, it begins to look like something of a reproach. For while you couldn’t fault the energy of this razzle-dazzle production, it is so persistently upbeat and consistently over-amplified that it begins to swamp the light touch and neat wit that make this show such a winner.
The story, you remember, is the biblical tale of Joseph, who rose from shepherd and dreamer to become Pharaoh’s number two. The story that draws the audience for this Joseph, though, is the television tale of Lee Mead, who rose from bit part and understudy to become Lloyd Webber’s number one. Mead sang week in, week out in Any Dream Will Do, a talent contest-cum-audition, seeing off competition from builders, clerks and shop assistants to win the public vote.
They chose well: Mead, with his mop of dark curls and ready smile, has stage presence, oodles of charm and a great voice. He carries the show effortlessly. His acting is not a whole- hearted success, though. The part of Joseph is no Hamlet, but still I’ve seen performers get more out of it. Mead doesn’t quite convey the mix of innocence and arrogance that so infuriates his brothers. Nor (and this is surprising, given that one of his strengths in Any Dream Will Do was his ability to find the story in a song) does he travel the full distance from abject despair to hope and resolution in his big solo, “Close Every Door”. But he does fill the theatre with his fine, rich voice and his sheer delight at being there is infectious.
Mead is the linchpin in a revival of Steven Pimlott’s 1991 London Palladium production, a staging that attempted to bridge the gap between the simplicity of the original show and the demands of the West End stage. It works, much of the time, largely by dint of never taking itself too seriously. Mark Thompson’s droll design features singing camels and a Las Vegas-style slot machine that dispenses corncobs in Pharaoh’s gaudy palace, and Nichola Treherne’s revival brings on gyrating, mini- skirted dancers to remind us of the musical’s 1960s origins. It fizzes with energy and is at its best in Lloyd Webber’s big pastiche numbers: the delightful, mock-mournful country and western song that the brothers sing when they have despatched Joseph into slavery, and the even more pleasing French chanson that they deliver when famine starts to bite.
But the breathless pace takes its toll. It is too much on one note and, most crucially, the speed and amplification overwhelm the story and obscure some of the lyrics. Not only does this make the plot hard to follow, it also robs us of one of the chief joys of the show: Tim Rice’s brilliant use of rhyming couplets. With lyrics such as “All these things you saw in your pyjamas/Are a long-range forecast for your farmers” you don’t want to drop a line. Preeya Kalidas, as the narrator, suffers most: to make her words audible she strains her voice and her character’s cool, ironic demeanour. Overstating your assets, as Joseph himself discovers, can get you into trouble. Mead’s enthusiasm and the effervescent inventiveness of the show win through – but only just.
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