Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is an oft mocked but actually under-rated vehicle in the canon of modern musical theatre, and especially in the sub-genre marked Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is chock full of tunes, warmth and even moral lessons. It provides an opportunity for a true star to shine and for a creative team to work magic. Such is its accessibility, it is well known to schoolchildren and often can be the first musical they encounter in a theatre. The current UK touring production is not so much one audiences will never forget as one they will struggle to remember.

Joseph

The programme gave the first hint of disaster, there being no listing for orchestra members contained therein. Musicals performed to recorded tracks rarely encourage attention, either aural or visual. Absent the verve and vitality of live musicians performing their professional best, it is difficult for principal and ensemble numbers to reach the heights they should. Difficult but not impossible.

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Sadly, for the Bill Kenwright production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, currently touring the UK, apart from one number, it is impossible. This is a fatally flawed, outrageously cheap looking, and quite tired production which really needs a thorough and total revamp. Most especially, it needs a live orchestra.

This Kenwright production has been around for some time, but it’s lustre has long since faded away. Even the famous multi-coloured coat, which is such an iconic symbol of the piece, looks dreary and tawdry – as if Dot Cotton had not paid enough attention to it when cleaning it.

Inflatable sheep that don’t inflate properly, ridiculous beards, ill-fitting costumes, cheap poker room lighting, one dimensional camels that might be at home in a nursery school nativity scene, cod choreography poorly executed, and a bank of tired, frankly bored children – the accoutrements of this production are defiantly old hat. Tired old hat.

There is nothing in Kenwright’s direction which compensates for the lack of live musicians. Only once did performer and recorded track come close to reaching the standard expected in live musical theatre – the solo Ballad toward the end of Act One, Close Every Door. Otherwise, musically, this is an affair as arid as the desert where Joseph finds himself sold into slavery.

Joseph

Joe McElderry works hard in the title role, but not even his winning resonances can animate the production. Largely, he is left alone to inject all the required charm and heart into the evening and he gives it his best shot.

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His voice is in good, ringing form but not all of his vowels and consonants are crisp. If you ever wondered what Any Dream Would Do would sound like if Liza Minnelli had included it in a Las Vegas show, you need go no further than McElderry’s opening gambit here – wide grin, flamboyant hand movements and slightly slurred articulation. It’s uncanny.

Close Every Door feels like an X Factor finale showstopper rather than a reflective, passionate Ballad – it is the best number of the show, and the showy high-noted accents in the final phrases are guaranteed to have a real impact. McElderry seems in his element there; it’s just that his element is not a professional production of Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. (The young girl next to me was irritated by the changed notes as she couldn’t sing along, an impediment she did not face in other numbers).

JosephLucy Kay, unless unwell on the night I attended, is a curious choice for the Narrator as her voice, while very strong in chest belt mode, is curiously weak at the top. The soft, urgent singing, so vital for the Narrator, was sadly missing, as was endearing charm.

McElderry deserves a much better support base, both from fellow performers and supervising creatives, in order to truly make his mark as a timeless Joseph. A live orchestra would be a good start. Recorded music might be cheaper, but relying upon it entirely just makes impossible the task of the onstage performers. Fresh directorial vision wouldn’t go astray either.

Note:

Since this review was published, many people have taken the time to point out that there was, in fact, a live orchestra/band playing in the theatre the night I attended.

I thank them and take their word for it. And, obviously, I apologise for criticising the production on the basis that there were no live musicians.

As I mentioned in the review, the programme did not credit live musicians. They could not be seen from my seat in the stalls. Inquiries with venue staff confirmed the presence of recorded backing tracks but did not confirm the presence of live musicians.

But, more than all that, the sound in the auditorium did not have the verve and vitality of live musicians playing the score. The sound seemed like recorded sound. That need not be fault of the live musicians; acoustics, sound design, set design, all can play a part.

I have no difficulty apologising to the live musicians for indicating they were not there. I was apparently wrong about that. I am sorry that I was. But the sound I heard, that night, in that auditorium, seemed more like recorded music than music played live – and it was that which severely hampered the production in my view.

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Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.