VSMT’s “Dreamcoat” looks amazing

Thomas Emerson

In 1964, essayist Susan Sontag found fame writing about something she named “camp.” Camp is a sensibility, one that finds pleasure in stylization and revels in flamboyant presentation. It sees the world with a sequin in its eye.

In its focus on style, however, the camp sensibility must set content aside. And with Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, like “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” it’s almost necessary to slight content in favor of style. These productions must be treated with camp gloves. Tom O’Horgan did it in “Jesus Christ, Superstar;” Hal Prince did it with “The Phantom of the Opera.” Case in point: what does everyone talk about after seeing “Phantom?” The character-driven lyrics? The carefully-constructed plot? No – they talk about the chandelier. There’s no choice but to elevate style above content in a Lloyd Webber musical, for there’s not much content to work with.

“Joseph” is no exception. The musical was written while Lloyd Webber was in high school, and it obviously never graduated with him. The music is uninspired and Tim Rice’s lyrics are embarrassing – the rhyming of “farmers” with “pajamas” would make Hammerstein roll over in his grave. I find it amazing that Lloyd Webber keeps the show in circulation. You’d think he’d realize it was the work of a rank amateur and shelve it.

With a show this poor, there’s no choice but to ditch content and instead cultivate what Sontag calls a “spirit of extravagance.” Directors Amy Gallo and Greg Plavcan did exactly that, gussying up the sparse show with as much pizzazz as a Liberace concert. Liberace, the flamboyant pianist who custom-ordered sequined pianos and costumes that would put a Mummer to shame, understood the power of campy, liberally applied glitz and glam – and the directors wisely stole a page from his playbook. Their fast-paced, delightfully extravagant production raided the theatrical bag of tricks, tossing in hat-and-cane routines, candle-lit vigils and hoedowns.

I was particularly impressed by their almost flawlessly executed send-ups of famous entertainers: Maurice Chevalier in “Those Canaan Days,” Elvis in “Song of the King” and Carmen Miranda, the ’40s Latin sensation, in “Benjamin Calypso” – there was even a Tutti Frutti hat! (I say “almost flawlessly,” for a misplaced dancer in “Canaan Days” distracted me with strange, pelvic-thrusting gyrations – a Martha Graham gone wrong.)

Throughout, Gallo and Plavcan remembered one of Broadway’s oldest maxims: to transcend mediocrity, send the audience home with a sequin in their eye and a bounce in their step. It was enough to make even this grumpy theatre critic crack a smile.

But there was another reason for my smile: the new faces in the cast. VSMT shows tend to get tiring after a while, because the same faces keep appearing in show after show like bland leftovers that reappear in countless dinners. This production, on the other hand, was a tasty new dish. I was impressed by peppy Kate Badura (the Baker/wife) and by Dave McFadden (the Butler/Asher), whose caricatured expressions and Gumby-esque limbs reminded me of Ray Bolger (“The Wizard of Oz’s” Scarecrow) in his prime. Andrew Clare (Reuben) gave a rollicking star-turn in “One More Angel” and my eye couldn’t help but turn to chorus members Gina Ingiosi and Matt Mendez who looked like they were having the time of their lives.

Sontag notes that “as taste in persons, camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated,” characteristics in which the deliciously over-the-top cast reveled.

But even camp can’t completely ignore content, for content is the foundation upon which style rests. (After all, Liberace’s rhinestone-covered pianos wouldn’t have mattered a bit if he hadn’t been able to play them.) In “Joseph,” Lloyd Webber’s narrator provides a link to content; she serves as a foundation for the show while framing it as a piece of fiction – “a story of big dreams,” as the directors noted. But there are no big dreams at the heart of this musical – only bad ones – and by fictionalizing the show, Lloyd Webber essentially excuses his poor craftsmanship. (One can almost hear him saying “It’s made-up! It’s not supposed to be good!”) The set of this production, a clever arrangement of larger-than-life storybooks, correctly echoed Lloyd Webber’s approach – although I would question the equation of “Huckleberry Finn” with “Joseph” on the storybook set. A more appropriate title to pair it with might have been “The Stinky Cheese Man.”

As the narrator, Patti Gillin is the glue that holds the sequins on this production, for her calm presence provides a common thread that ties the campier elements into a unified whole. Although at times her cheery smile seems painted on, her mellow alto is in top form and soars luxuriously over the auditorium. Beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more natural, unaffected voice.

Matthew Rusk (Joseph), on the other hand, seems extremely self-conscious for most of the show, only warming up as the final curtain approaches. (Of course, if I were wearing a costume as dangerously short as his, I would be self-conscious too.) Joseph, like the narrator, must carefully tread the line between campy and serious, between style and content. Although Rusk clearly revels in the camp side of his character (his bit with the angel wings is one of the show’s funniest moments), and although his delivery of “Close Every Door” is beautiful indeed, his serious side lacks guts, thus refusing the show one of the groundings in reality that the show so desperately needs.

And without at least a few connections to reality, there’s always a chance that camp can be taken too far. There was only one point when this show verged on collapse – during a mega mix of the hit tunes just before the final curtain. “Joseph” may be a bad musical, but it’s not so bad that it needs a summary of the major points – especially when that summary is illuminated by malfunctioning black lights and performed to a completely anachronistic techno beat.

But, I digress. Gallo, Plavcan and the cast of “Joseph” unquestionably gave Lloyd Webber’s kindergarten-quality show a top-notch treatment that masked its problems with a liberal application of theatrical magic. It was camp at its best.

On reflection, perhaps this is why Lloyd Webber keeps “Joseph” in circulation: talented creators succeed in making his poor work look outstanding. Bravo, VSMT.