Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Theater review part deux: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne
I drove more than an hour to review this production, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne is a unique and impressive organization. A little more than an hour southwest of Dallas, Cleburne's city motto is, "This is Texas." As you drive down their main street, you can feel the truth of that motto.
Then you enter the Plaza Theatre. In this small Texas town, you have one of the most vibrant community theatres I have ever come across. The people in this area love Plaza Theatre Company. Where most theatre companies would consider it a great success to have over 100 season ticket holders, Plaza has over 900 season ticket holders! As a matter of fact WFAA named this company the best theatre-going experience in North Texas. Amazingly enough, within this small Texas town, you will find one of the best community theatre experiences in the state.
The current production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (playing through July 30) was no exception. Director JaceSon Barrus took his limited space and the challenge of doing theatre in the round and created an amazing experience for the theatre goers of Cleburne. This was a small, intimate venue yet there were times when over 45 cast members were onstage with full choreography. How they pulled it off with no injuries was beyond me! I gave a lot of credit to the choreography created by Tabitha Barrus. She was able to have many people in a tight space engaged in controlled chaos throughout the evening. Not an easy task!
The set was simple yet amazingly effective. In order to accommodate some of those large dance numbers, there couldn't be many set pieces at any given time. JaceSon Barrus solved this dilemma by using four ramps and four cubes that were frequently repositioned throughout the evening. The set was left largely to the audience's imagination but the set pieces gave us just enough framework to understand the plot. Very clever; Tetris at a grand level.
Joseph is the first show publicly shown from the powerhouse team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It has long been a staple of community theatre, high school, and college productions. But that doesn't mean it's now relegated to the sidelines of musical theatre. In 2005 another national tour of the production was launched with Patrick Cassidy in the title role and the UK national tour is still running and going strong! This is a show that has it all – drama, comedy, satire, stunning vocals, and showy dance numbers. Sounds good, but it's also a substantial challenge for the theatre company that chooses to take it on.
Thankfully Plaza Theatre Company sunk their teeth into this show and did it with energy and style. And what amazing energy! From start to finish this cast was dancing and singing up a storm. There was no way I could mention every member of this colossal production in this review but I can make one sweeping statement. Every single cast member gave it their all. I didn't see anyone "phoning it in." When dealing with such a large cast, that is an impressive claim.
Another challenge in having such a large cast was costuming them! Tina Barrus took this challenge in stride. For the chorus the costumes were simplistic yet effective. For the primary characters, Tina Barrus worked miracles! The titular Coat of Many Colors was amazing. In such an intimate venue everyone could see the smallest detail. The coat was a quality piece of work. The attention to detail, the colors, and the layering all presented a splendid garment, which was exactly what needed to happen. Equally impressive were the costumes worn by Joseph when he was the Pharaoh's right hand man, and the Pharaoh himself. Visually arresting and very well done!
The play opened with two narrators who gave an introduction to the story in song, as young children came and sat around the stage to hear the tale being spun. Daron Cockerell and Caitlan Davis did a wonderful job throughout the show as the narrators. Their voices were powerful, beautiful, and blended together in a most pleasing way. A special nod went to Caitlan Davis as I felt she really connected with the kids as she sang – and her voice was truly captivating.
It is amazing what they have done with the lighting in such a small space. Every square inch of that ceiling is covered with lighting equipment, and it was typically used well. That said, during this number as well as during the opening number of the second act the narrators were often in shadow as they walked around and sang. I recognize it would have been difficult to have a follow spot illuminating them throughout the songs due to the nature of the venue, but something needed to be done to prevent them from walking in and out of shadow during these two numbers.
When you have a production that relies on children you take a significant gamble. My kudos went to this production's kids, their parents, and the people who worked with them. They knew their roles and were expressive and completely engaged in the show. They did a great job and I could tell they were having a blast being a part of this fun show.
Then Gregory Gerardi, as Joseph, came out and continued the story told to the kids with the song "Any Dream Will Do." This was our first taste of Gerardi's vocal skills, and he did not disappoint. He had a clean, pure voice with a natural vibrato that enhanced his singing. This number stretched Gerardi vocally and his delivery diminished during the segments that required a lower range, but all-in-all he handled the song very well.
Then came the big musical number "Jacob and Sons" where we got to meet Joseph's large family. This was the first number with a large number of people on the stage and it was executed very well! As I looked around the theatre I saw smiles on every face in the audience. This was a great way to kick off the show and the energy stayed throughout the night.
As the cast moved into the next number I noticed the first significant problem that was recurrent throughout the night. "Joseph's Coat" was another number full of dancing and singing chorus. Gerardi had significant lines to sing but his voice was drowned out by the chorus despite the fact that Joseph was wearing a microphone. This difficulty with sound balance reoccurred during the songs "Potiphar," "Grovel, Grovel," and "Joseph All the Time." I'm not sure if the issue was simply that the intimacy of the venue caused the chorus to overpower the lead voice or if it was a technical issue. I leaned towards the latter as there were several minor sound glitches throughout the night. Often a principle character began to sing unamplified and then their microphone would come up mid-number.
The most frustrating instance of this was Josh Leblo's Levi singing the big number, "One More Angel in Heaven." Sadly, his microphone was off the entire time and the song was largely lost. This was a shame as I could tell Leblo was doing an excellent job acting and emoting through the song, and what I could hear of his voice was excellent.
During all the beautiful chaos of the dance and chorus numbers it was difficult at times for me to tell who was who but I would like to point out a couple of standout performers from the 11 brothers. All of them did an excellent job but I was particularly aware of the energy and engagement of John Garcia as Simeon, JaceSon P. Barrus as Naphtali, Daniel Scott Robinson as Gad, and Parker Barrus as Benjamin. Again, all the brothers were an absolute joy to watch but these particular men caught my attention with their characterizations of their parts.
Another wonderful yet all-too-brief performance was Kyle Macy as Potiphar. His comic timing, facial expressions, and physicality were a lot of fun. I enjoyed his time on the stage. Daniel Scott Robinson as the Butler has a lot of fun with his part, and Jacob Humphries as the Baker exhibited some great vocals. This was an amazingly talented cast all around!
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, having been around for quite some time, has certain songs that stick out. One of these songs is "Close Every Door." This is the song by which any actor who played Joseph should be judged. It is a serious number that showcases both the actor's vocal skills and their acting ability, and Gerardi did not disappoint. He sang with passion, longing and intensity. His engagement with the kids through the bars of his jail cell was deeply moving. He could have simply sung the song mechanically but he poured himself into the number.
Another highlight of the show was when the Pharaoh took the stage. Traditionally this is the comedic moment everyone who knows the show looks forward to and those who don't know the show are blown away by this character and his solo. John Garcia as Pharaoh had the audience in hysterics with his royal rendition of Elvis. Complete with an amazing costume straight out of Elvis' Vegas years, and an impressive pompadour hairstyle, Garcia proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was "All Shook Up" about those bad dreams. This was a challenging role that needed to be executed well and Garcia delivered. There were still some sound problems with a loose microphone that caused us to lose some lyrics but Garcia's performance overcame that obstacle and the audience had a great time.
JaceSon Barrus led the brothers in a parody of the French tragic ballad as they mourned "Those Canaan Days" and they truly mourned them in style. This was one of the defining moments of the show for me. The brothers, with their chairs, berets, and the occasional stuffed sheep, were simply amazing. Every one of those men nailed this number. Thank you!
I had never mentioned a curtain call in a review before but the curtain call for this production was unlike anything I had ever seen before in my life. Consisting of a medley of some of the high points of the show the curtain call was at least 10 minutes of intense dancing, singing, and hilarity. I'm certain I saw one of Joseph's brothers dressed as a storm trooper straight out of Star Wars!
Without a doubt the absolute best moment of this musical occurred during the first act after the song "Poor, Poor Joseph." I won't spoil it for you, but I could safely say that, by far, the best actress in the production was Mimi Barrus. I'm not going to tell you why. But when you attend the show, watch for this moment. Best. Acting. Ever.
Should you buy your tickets to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Plaza Theatre? Yes – without a doubt. I drove more than an hour in order to review this production, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Don't miss this one – you will not be disappointed!
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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