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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Dreamcoat’ Has Seen Brighter Days

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Gore Vidal once put it, “The theater needs continual reminders that there is nothing more debasing than the work of those who do well what is not worth doing at all.”

So take a memo: The national touring production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which opened Tuesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, is done half-well but still not worth doing.

Director Steven Pimlott has said “We wanted something where a variety show meets the Bible.” That is precisely what he and his creative team have achieved. The Bible lost. And so did the variety show. I’ve seen “Josephs” done in community theaters with more spirit on less talent and a lot less money.

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This extravaganza looked as if it needed artificial respiration on opening night. It lay there like yesterday’s souffle until the second act and then came alive only sporadically--most of all in the pumped-up encore.

Warning: “Joseph” just about gets on its hands and knees for a Standing O. It has a fake-out, not fade-out, ending. So don’t stand up too soon, because you’re going to have to sit back down again for two numbers and a curtain call that lasts till the cows come home for the last milking.

Taking the show from the top: The overture to this Old Testament tale about the Jewish lad Joseph and his brothers, who sell him into Egyptian slavery, sounds like a medley of “Sesame Street” song rejects. You can’t fault the orchestra. Blame the music of the wonder boy Andrew Lloyd Webber in his early days.

To describe the score, you’d have to say it’s an overly cute pastiche of calypso, country, pop-rock, French cabaret for laughs and the customary American dose of imitation Elvis for bigger laughs.

As to the lyrics, Tim Rice has been over-praised for years on account of their so-called freshness. I give you some typical ones, these from Joseph’s first number: “We all dream a lot / Some are lucky, some are not.”

Sam Harris, who stars as Joseph, is a double threat. No. 1: He’s a top-of-the-line pop singer, and No. 2: He has an appealing bod--nice pecs, great abs and good-looking legs in his cocktail dress--a lovely Egyptian miniskirt. Can he act? Don’t know. Acting is not required. Can he dance? Don’t know, but he can do the Monkey and the Twist.

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Kristine Fraelich, the Narrator, is another double threat. No. 1: She’s a first-class pop singer, and No. 2: She looks like a precision hoofer in the few dance moves she’s given. John Ganun (the Pharaoh) puts his Elvis act across, ripely done. And Glenn Sneed (the Pharaoh’s butler) has “zany” down cold. He’d also be perfect for the Sergeant of Police in “The Pirates of Penzance.”

But over all this is a bland, cartoonish show--often loud and too often shrill, a shoutfest for belters miked to the limit. The set is simple--basic bus-and-truck--and as slick as a Las Vegas marquee. Just think of a kiddie Vegas production and you’ve got the picture.

Costumes range from good to lousy. Love that miniskirt. Is anything less flattering, however, than those get-ups for the Pharoah’s wives? We’re talking G-strings and flesh-colored body stockings, all draped in potato sacks of fishnet.

There are innocents in this “Joseph”: a huge crowd of children--local choruses, in fact--that joins the troupe on stage. Mazel tov to them.

* “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Orange C ounty Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa . (714) 556-2787 or (213) 480-3232. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends July 30. $19-$47. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Aug. 8-20: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., (213) 365-3500; Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; $22-$57.

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