Fewer than 90 minutes after it began, the Timber Lake Playhouse's season-opening production of Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ended, appropriately, with a blast of exuberant, life-affirming color. Yet at the curtain call for this fantastically well-sung presentation of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's and lyricist Tim Rice's beloved biblical musical, it became clear that the stars of the show weren't the gifted performers portraying Joseph, the Narrator, or any of director James Beaudry's 19 other cast members. The real stars, it turned out, were the streamers.
Actually, maybe they were ribbons. Or oversize, multi-hued rubber bands. Whatever they were, these elasticized accoutrements by scenic designer Ben Lipinski proved, in the end, to be the life of the party. Attached to the Timber Lake stage's ceiling (and, we'd later discover, from the rear of the auditorium) were some two dozen crayon-colored extensions about six inches wide and at least 25 feet long, each of them flexible enough to be pulled from one side of the Mt. Carroll venue to the other without snapping. And Lord almighty were these things a valuable addition to the proceedings.
With Joseph's ensemble, via Beaudry's smart choreography, in charge of their trajectories, the streamers created arresting geometric patterns and rainbow effects, and, at one point, a half-dozen streamers that were dropped from center-stage even formed the bars to Joseph's prison cell. (The woman sitting in front of me at Thursday's performance applauded the streamers' first appearance, and was right to do so.) In general, Beaudry opted for a minimalist approach to his visuals; beyond designer James Kolditz's graceful and unobtrusive lighting effects, costumer Emma Crafton dressed most of the cast in jeans and colored T-shirts, and the only functional set pieces were the roughly seven-foot-tall letters of the title character's name that were occasionally scooted about the stage. (When positioned on its side, the "E" - cleverly employed to segue into the show's "Egypt" and "Elvis" sequence - made an excellent substitute for the Pharaoh's bed.) Yet this production's dangling, wonderfully utilitarian ceiling extensions were proof positive that you don't need plummeting chandeliers or helicopters to create theatrical magic, and if our crowd hadn't already been on its feet at the curtain call's start, the streamers' show-ending burst of invention would have easily done the trick.
In truth, as enjoyable as Timber Lake's presentation is, I would've preferred even more reasons to stand. As anyone familiar with Joseph can tell you - and by now, is anyone not familiar with it? - Webber's and Rice's early collaboration seems nearly impossible to screw up. A swift, mostly upbeat tale of prophetic visions and brotherly love (attempted fratricide excepted), the musical and its genre-hopping numbers are continually delightful, and its overall mood of revelry, even during ballads, is sustained throughout an hour-and-a-half that includes intermission and a climactic "best of" reprise. (Joseph is a true rarity: delicious and fat-free.) But the show's indestructible quality also means that it requires enormous personality to emerge as more than merely a well-oiled musical-theatre machine, and despite outstanding singing across the board, excess personality was what opening night's adept, effective production was lacking.
While I found no fault with his strongly delivered, pitch-perfect vocals, Gabriel Brown's Joseph seemed rather unformed; even though the figure, by design, is a mostly passive one, we were deprived the cheerful, preening narcissism that would cause Joseph's insulted siblings to loathe him. (Joseph productions are usually enhanced with a title character who kind of deserves his banishment.) And despite her gorgeous phrasing and beautiful soprano and alto registers, Melissa Weyn's Narrator, too, appeared to perform in a perpetual daze, her beatific smile and lovely presence not quite suggesting any need to tell this particular story.
Grant Brown and the hugely charismatic Blake W. Price were terrific as two of the ensemble's more prominently featured soloists, and Christian Chambers, who took the lead on the "Benjamin Calypso," earned the show's top acting honors; his anguished defense of his unjustly accused brother made you feel, briefly, that something in this presentation was truly at stake. Yet although their harmonies and dance moves were wonderful, Joseph's collection of talented performers tended to blend into one totally serviceable but sadly unmemorable unit. With the brothers (portrayed here by more women than men, with another woman - Analisha Santini - cast as patriarch Jacob) given little opportunity to interact or emerge as individuals, they were easy to forget about, and that included the double-cast Nathan Goodrich, whose game Pharaoh-in-Presley-drag also exuded something of a "been there/gyrated that" vibe. (As there's no longer any whiff of surprise when this figure arrives - Timber Lake patrons chuckled at the Elvis shtick even before the lights came up on Goodrich - it might be time for Joseph productions to fashion the character after someone other than Elvis. How about Justin Timberlake, or Pharrell Williams, or some other pop star with a recognizable hat?)
Still, beginning and ending with the cast's sensational vocals and those sensational streamers, there's certainly enough about this Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to merit a Mt. Carroll visit. Beaudry's gifts for intelligent and imaginative staging - in the "Joseph's Dreams" and "Poor Joseph" numbers especially - are on fine display, and ensemble member Lexie Plath is absolutely electrifying as the vivacious man-eater Mrs. Potiphar; at one point during Plath's come-hither number, she snuggled up next to Joseph and then descended into the splits, and the sound that followed was that of hundreds of audience members' jaws also hitting the floor. And while I wouldn't dream of giving away the joke, be on the lookout - though you won't have to look hard - for Beaudry's brilliantly funny plug for Timber Lake's forthcoming production of Les Misérables. It'll be several weeks 'til we hear those people sing, but for the present, hearing the crowd's subsequent laughs was magnifique enough for me.
Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the Timber Lake Playhouse (8215 Black Oak Road, Mt. Carroll) through June 15, and more information and tickets are available by calling (815)244-2035 or visiting TimberLakePlayhouse.org.