I enjoy seeing a beloved musical that's so well-known I could easily sing along (though I never would). It's also fun seeing familiar faces and saying, "Hey, I know her!" "I acted with him!" Countryside Community Theatre's Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is that kind of show. It's both a classic and a family affair, as many summer productions with this company are.
The musical's genesis (ha ha) is in the Old Testament story of Joseph, and its whimsical lyrics and music are by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the duo who also concocted a sober, cynical take on a New Testament story with Jesus Christ Superstar. I think their development of both shows overlapped – an incredible feat. I admire their hard work and stamina, as well as that of everyone involved in Countryside's lively, colorful production.
Joseph's basic plot in this retelling is the same as in ancient writings, but it's been stretched to wacky extremes – the rap battles in Hamilton are more historically accurate than these songs. But this is theatre, which should reveal things in a different light as well as entertain, and this production does. The material stays true to its 1967 beginnings as a student concert piece, as it's addressed to a young audience, with almost half of this production's cast composed of children, too. And director Karl Bodenbender and his staff, cast, and crew cram a lot into about an hour and a half.
The story's capitalized Narrator is played by two talented performers: Hillary Erb and Kirsten Sindelar. I've seen this tack before (the role is traditionally portrayed by only one performer), and it works well here. Erb and Sindelar probably have some exhausted pipes by the final curtain, but their every note is strong, and their harmonies are lovely. Our Joseph, the loveable golden boy/fall guy, is played by Tommy Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt. He has given many fine performances, and in this production, he allows me to finally describe an actor as "incandescent." In this role, Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt seems truly lit from within.
He was excellent on Saturday, as I'd expected he'd be. But he surprised me by underplaying beautifully and straightforwardly. There's plenty of humor in this show, and Joseph delivers some, such as his panicky attempts to elude the amorous Mrs. Potiphar (an amusing Rochelle Schrader), and his feeble protest against being sold into slavery: "I don't speak Egyptian very well." Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt's Joseph, though, is calmly human, and humble. Despite his brothers' envy of him, there was no smugness in this Joseph, as I've seen in others. When Ratkiewicz-Stierwalt sings "Close Every Door" despairing, imprisoned, on the darkened stage in a hard white spotlight, recounting torments he's suffered and those possible ahead – and asserts that he will achieve peace of mind – the actor's face and voice, and the youth chorus bearing flickering LED candles, made this the highlight of the show for me. A light doesn't need to shine directly into your eyes for you to know that it's bright.
The youth chorus, 23 strong, is visible throughout most of the show, either onstage or on steps nearby. Their energy, enthusiasm, and vocals make Bodenbender's production what it is. Chorus: Be proud of all you've done, and I hope you keep it up! Joseph's ensemble, meanwhile, is made up of older, versatile performers who portray Jacob's wives, Egyptian courtiers and servants, and more. Choreographer Kathy LaFrenz had a monumental task, giving numerous directions to 212 legs and arms, and there was so much going on that it was hard to know where to look.
Jim O'Connor plays Joseph's father Jacob in a voluminous explosion of hair and robes, as well as the millionaire Potiphar in elegant tails. I was happy to see O'Connor again after his performance in Countryside's The Music Man last year. Matthew Downey dominates the stage as the Pharaoh, hitting the sweet spot in his homage to a particular 20th-century personage, providing neither too little, nor too much. Those 11 envious brothers are played by both neophytes and veterans, with some of these actors doubling as other characters. Jack Bevans, as Simeon, also plays the Baker, and Keith Glass is both Levi and the Butler. Portraying these secondary characters who are imprisoned alongside Joseph, Bevans and Glass perform nice solos in "Go, Go, Go Joseph," and are flung to the floor in their bare-legged garb so violently that it made my knees hurt.
Countryside's production has many impressive aspects: Joe Urbaitis' convincing drawl as Reuben in the country-style "One More Angel in Heaven”; the perfect pirouette (by, I believe, Brighton Griem) in "Go, Go, Go Joseph”; the wonderfully singular Ishmaelite in that "hairy bunch" in Act I; Marcus King's sinuous dancing as Zebulon in "Benjamin Calypso”; the variety of ensembles, and multiple outfits for most of the 53 performers, by costume designer Erin Emerle – particularly the spectacular Egyptian-inspired couture. Oh, and there's a coat.
Go to this Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and have a great time. You'll feel like part of Countryside's warm community, even if you don't live in Eldridge.
Countryside Community Theatre's Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat runs at the North Scott High School Fine Arts Auditorium (200 South First Street, Eldridge IA) through July 3, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)370-7323 and visiting CountrysideTheatre.com.