Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Theater review: Frisco Community Theatre preaches uninspired Joseph musical
Theater is about having fun and wanting to connect with the audience, and this show lacked both of those factors.
FRISCO As fellow associate theater critic for The Column Richard Blake pointed out in his review of Dallas Theater Center’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat earlier this year, more than 20,000 schools and amateur theatre groups have performed this early rock musical by the revered team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. In truth, I sometimes feel as though I’ve seen them all. Joseph is without doubt one of the most-performed musicals ever written, and though it was innovative and fresh when it was first performed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is a rare occasion when this musical presents anything unexpected now. DCT’s staging earlier this year proved to be one such occasion. Frisco Community Theatre’s current production was unfortunately not.
As a passionate advocate of community theatre, I find myself in a difficult position writing this review. I believe strongly in both the power and responsibility of community theatre. Though great performances are certainly appreciated, the point of community theatre is to establish some sort of dialogue between players and audience.
If the audience is engaged, stimulated, educated, challenged, or charmed, then in my book the production is a success. I root for community theatre because it has an important social role to play.
FCT’s production of Joseph was sub-par, but their bigger transgression was in their seeming disregard of the audience. The direction appeared completely uninspired, and for the majority of the show the cast looked as though they were simply going through the motions rather than making a concerted effort to entertain or to connect with their audience on any level.
Director Neale Whitmore made the questionable decision to stage a full-out production of this flashy musical in a small black box theater, squeezing a cast of 28 into far too small a space. The set consisted of three separate scaffolds upstage and a raised platform center stage, none of which was used effectively to give the show some much needed visual depth.
One can only imagine the frustration of Eddie Floresca, whose past work has shown him to be successfully innovative with a good sized cast in a small space. The dance sequences in FCT’s Joseph, by contrast, were a confused jumble of people all jostling for elbow room as they performed choreography more suitable for a space four times as large. A notable exception was a fun and trick-filled ballroom number during “Those Canaan Days” when the two dancers were given room to showcase their talent. The cast did utilize the aisles in the audience on occasion, but the upstage scaffolding was by and large wasted.
Whitmore’s lighting design was uninspired but effective, rarely leaving any of the cast in the dark when they weren’t supposed to be, but not adding anything of substance. The costumes by Deborah Jaskolka were fun and appropriately garish, though at times they approached pre-packaged Halloween costume quality with their constant and generous displays of bare midriffs.
The band, housed in an off-stage space on stage right, was on key and on cue throughout the entire production. Music Director Erin McGrew did what she could to keep them from drowning out the singers, but in the end the sound quality was abysmal. As the show opened, I was gratified to see the principals each had microphones, because in a show where every word is sung, it’s important that the singers be clearly understood.
However, it sounded as if Sound Designer Tony Adams had muffled those mics, especially with Joseph, played by Michael Alonzo, who was barely audible in the group numbers and only slightly more so during his solo moments. Joseph is rarely the most interesting of the characters in any production of this show, but Alonzo seemed nearly irrelevant, merely something around which the rest of the action was unfolding.
In fact, if I hadn’t been as familiar with the show, I probably would have been confused with the plot and the characters since I couldn’t always hear them.
Over and over, I found myself wishing that everyone involved in this production, cast and crew, would just turn it up four or five notches.
The ensemble performed their assigned choreography with dead faces, and most of the cast displayed little energy.
Rachel Robertson, as the Narrator, seemed to be performing on auto-pilot. Her vocals were often slightly off as well, which is something that could have easily been forgiven if her performance had been less pat. Ben Westfried played Jacob with some sense of comedy, and his Westfried’s solo on the clarinet during the country blues number “One More Angel in Heaven” was impressive, and Derek Whitener as Levi during that same number showed more energy than the rest of the cast combined. Similarly, Oscar Seung, as Reuben, displayed an amusing sense of pathos along with a talent for the violin in “Those Canaan Days.” His was also one of the voices I could actually hear and it showed real talent.
The rest of the brothers, like the rest of the cast, didn’t seem to start having fun until halfway through Act II, after Dustin Simington’s performance as the Elvis-inspired Pharaoh electrified the audience. Simington was far and away the stand-out performance of the night. He milked his time in the spotlight for everything it was worth, interacting with the audience, the band, and the other cast members with a confidence that was evident nowhere else in the production. It was a real shame that, like Alonzo, his vocals were largely lost due to sound problems. However, his performance exemplified everything the rest of the cast was lacking to that point, and the show did pick up a little after his “Song of the King.” Perhaps the cast caught some of the enthusiasm of Simington’s performance; in any case, toward the middle of the second act, the cast started to seem as if they actually wanted to be there.
Joseph is a show that requires a certain level of energy to be successful, and this production just didn’t have it. The cast never seemed engaged with the show in the least. Theater is about having fun and wanting to connect with the audience, and this show lacked both of those factors. The bad sound, the crowded and uninventive staging, and all the rest could have been excused if Frisco Community Theatre had remembered why they were there in the first place: to show the people in their community who came out to support them a good time.
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