Dreamcoat Photo by: Courtesy of Barbara Mazeika

A land of their own

Skyway’s update of Dreamcoat thrusts audiences into war-torn Israel

By Jenny Lower 10/03/2013

The latest Skyway Playhouse production makes a bold move. Director Jolyn Johnson has reimagined the peppy Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat into a more somber time and place: Israel in June 1967 at the start of the Six-Day War. That conflict asserted the young country’s military strength over its neighbors and gained Israel the territories of the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, all of which (save the Sinai) it still holds today. More importantly, the victory further cemented Israelis’ national identity as a people beloved by God, defending the land they had been promised.

In the play, the patrons of Jerusalem’s Zion Cinema are enjoying a captioned Hebrew version of Danny Kaye’s The Inspector General when the reel suddenly cuts out and a burst of shelling erupts outside. The story of Joseph and his brothers becomes an improvised pastime, a kind of whistling in the dark while the terrified Israeli civilians wait out the bombardment.

The conceit means that costumes fall closer to what you might unearth from a costume chest in an aging cinematheque, rather than what you’d expect to find in a polished Broadway version of the same production. The concept allows for helpful inconsistencies in storytelling, like a mixed-gender crew of brothers, single actors playing multiple roles, and a certain latitude with staging. Throughout the play, the violence outside regularly interrupts the action.

This thematic facelift isn’t as strange as it might sound. Webber and his partner Tim Rice conceived the musical for a British preparatory school in 1967 as the events we see onstage were unfolding a world away. Given this history, and especially in the context of Skyway’s staging, songs like “Close Every Door” — with its lyrics beseeching, “Give me a number / Instead of my name” — take on even deeper significance just two decades after the Holocaust.

Johnson met with an Israeli consultant for a year to capture the mood and details of the era. And as a stand-alone concept, the vision works surprisingly well: it’s smart, fresh and remarkably relevant to the source material. After all, the biblical narrative of the favored son sold into slavery in Egypt, only to emerge as the pharaoh’s right-hand man, is Israel’s own history as a people. From this redemption tale arise the 12 tribes and an explanation for how they came to be in Egypt. Generations later, they would unite under Moses and return to the land of their forefathers. But though insightful, the sophisticated concept struggles with a somewhat shaky execution. 

Sara Calvey anchors the production as the sympathetic narrator, and Shea Taylor brings a light touch to his triple portrayals of Jacob, Potiphar and the Pharaoh. As Joseph, Luis Soto transitions from self-assurance to noble despair in his moving rendition of “Close Every Door.” The cast and crew have hit on some clever solutions to technical and costuming challenges that are too fun to spoil here.

But the show’s strengths also create its biggest directorial challenge. According to the bunker conception, the entire cast — all 12 brothers, a children’s choir, a back-up female choir and assorted citizens — must remain onstage throughout. Without traditional entrances and exits to help manage so many bodies, blocking becomes even more imperative.

Johnson seems to have relied too heavily on the improvisational nature of the production, rather than grouping actors into discrete clusters. The result is that we sometimes feel as though we’re watching a rehearsal, with actors standing or milling about as if in a bustling marketplace. This style works, sort of, for the play’s themes. But one can’t help feeling that the production should gradually draw us in until we forget they’re sitting in a theater, until we forget that we’re sitting in a theater. The shelling, when it comes, should startle us as much as them.

Like many recent Skyway productions, this Joseph hinges on a risky, exciting premise — one that’s intriguing to explore and that, with a firmer hand, could gel into a more satisfying production.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat through Oct. 27, Skyway Playhouse, 330 Skyway Drive, Camarillo. 388-5716 or skywayplayhouse.org.


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