In case you didn't know it, what Andrew Lloyd Webber does best is write children's shows. See "Cats," "Starlight Express," "Jesus Christ Superstar" (a historical fairy tale on an epic scale), "Phantom of the Opera" (Gothic fairy tale on an opulent scale) and even "Evita" (fairy-tale politics).
But it all began in the summer of 1967 with "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," written as a 15-minute "pop cantata" for the the Easter concert at St. Paul's Junior School at Colet Court, where Lloyd Webber's younger brother was a student. This was so much fun that Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice kept adding on to it, until, by 1972 "Joseph" had become a full-length show.
Now, 21 years later, "Joseph" is all grown up and the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood is playing host to the latest production of that slender, expanded cantata.
Based on the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers and labeled Lloyd Webber's "new production of," this Really Useful Theatre Company presentation remembers the only really useful commandment: To have fun.
It may be extravagant and slick, but the music's ironic--stretching from tango to calypso (at the Ancient Egyptian court?!)--and the lyrics parody everything in sight, from biblical stereotypes to the host of anachronisms thrown in just for laughs: a Hollywood Sign, a singing camel, a talking viper, a swiveling Elvis Presley Pharaoh (the show-stopping Robert Torti).
And that's only the half of it. British director Steven Pimlott knows how to do Big without doing Staid, unlike a boring American version that played the same theater in 1982. This show has pizazz. It's loaded with humor, exuberant energy and kids, in the form of four children's choirs: the American Youth Express (Torrance), the Colors of Love (Encino), the Hawthorne School Chorus (Beverly Hills) and the Pat Nixon Elementary School Chorus (Cerritos). That's lots of kids, who all seem to be having the time of their lives.
The bulk of the creative team is British this time around, with fanciful lighting by Andrew Bridge and vivid, inventive costumes by Mark Thompson who also designed the sets--everything from a gilt-edged Pandora's box that spills out the oodles of children, to pyramids and a blue-eyed Sphinx with a slot machine for a chest that dominates that vaguely Las Vegas, faintly Art Deco neo-Egyptian desert.
(Three ears of corn in a row and bingo! Jackpot! Famine's over!)
It's all gloriously silly, filled with eye-popping color and, above all, terrifically athletic dancing from the boundless imagination of choreographer Anthony Van Laast, who makes the coalescing finale and curtain call, in gleaming white, a kind of extended aerobics class.
No complaints. This company never stops moving and looks as if it would love nothing better than to go on dancing all night.
That's the trick: To give an audience the sense that you, the performer, are sorry it's over.
Michael Damian does well in that department. He's an engaging, spoiled and preening Joseph. And while he's playing the part a bit too much like a well-coiffed matinee idol (that wig's got to go), he's an amiable hero who doesn't hesitate to also poke fun at himself. It's a long way from his Danny Romalotti on "The Young and the Restless," but you can see why his disgruntled brothers are happy to sell Daddy's pet down the Nile.
John Cameron's orchestration and the musical direction by Paul Bogaev are as smart and bouncy as the rest of the show, which is enhanced by Martin Levan's superior sound design--the most balanced in memory at this theater.
Notable in this cast of thousands, aside from Damian and the snorting Torti, are Glenn Sneed's prissy butler ("the Jeeves of his time"), Ty Taylor's gyrating Benjamin, Kelli Rabke's high-pitched Narrator and sexy Julie Bond as the sleek predator, Mrs. Potiphar. They are, however, all part of an altogether spiffy perpetual motion ensemble.
True, the women are a bit bimboesque (those Egyptian cheerleaders look like recent acquisitions from Le Cirque du Soleil) and in "Those Canaan Days" the parody gets very "Fiddler on the Roof." But you can't get serious about this show. The byplay and wordplay are shameless, as in references to the Sphinx ("That's my mummy") or to the story's biblical origins ("We've read the book, Joseph; you come out on top").
Play is the byword, the prevailing mood. In all respects, at every minute. "Joseph" will please adults in search of an antidote to pomposity--and it should be a winner with kids, who will be dazzled by its Technicolor and tickled by its humor, and who should find the inspired participation of fellow kids particularly inviting.
* "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Indefinitely (tickets on sale through April 4). $25-$55; (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours.
Michael Damian: Joseph Kelli Rabke: Narrator Clifford David: Jacob/Potiphar/Guru Robert Torti: Pharaoh Glenn Sneed: Butler Bill Nolte: Cook Julie Bond: Mrs. Potiphar Tina Ou, Tim Schultheis: Apache Dancers
A Really Useful Theatre Company production. Co-producer Rodger Hess productions. Director Steven Pimlott. Music Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics Tim Rice. Sets and costumes Mark Thompson. Lights Andrew Bridge. Sound Martin Levan. Orchestration John Cameron. Musical supervision Michael Reed. Musical direction Paul Bogaev. Choreography Anthony Van Laast. Production stage manager Jeff Lee. Production manager Peter Fullbright.