It's bombastic, durable and virulently likeable – the show's the thing, and what a show
'Hey, hey, Joseph, what you gonna do?' It's the opening line of one of the more introspective numbers in Joseph and the Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat, and an apt reflection for this non-eponymous reviewer, who hasn’t been exposed to the sensory assault of an Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza before.
This bombastic biblical bash surely is the most virulent and durable franchise in the Lloyd Webber stable of musicals. Needless to say, it’s a spectacle one order of magnitude away from Cecil B de Mille, and the Grand Opera House’s usually expansive stage suddenly seems a little cosy with a production of this size.
At times, the cast fill every inch. There’s the umpteen singing cherubs from Stagecoach Belfast that form an effective chorus line for starters, and Joseph has 11 brothers and a dad to contend with – all before we even get to Egypt!
That’s where the story begins. It’s a simple tale, and as with most of these folksy, cautionary narratives, it’s actually quite difficult to warm to many of the characters, especially the protagonist. That’s probably why Joseph has been traditionally played by the likeable boy-next-door type, be it Jason Donovan, Donny Osmond or Gareth Gates. All nice, non-threatening boys who your mum wouldn’t mind offering a second scone to.
Keith Jack is the latest to try on the Benetton Barbour, and he is perfect fodder for a role that simply asks for teeth, hair and an eagerness to please. Troublingly for purists, he actually came second in Any Dream Will Do, the BBC's bid to find a Joseph several years back.
However, having since served time in the pivotal role of the narrator in a previous production, young Jack seems more than up for the role. The production is literally all-singing and all-dancing; there is little or no spoken dialogue. Mugging to the audience and eyebrow-wiggling pass for varying denotations of emotion just before another key number – and they’re all key numbers – is belted out.
In short, it’s hugely, gloriously cheesy. Little mischievous touches such as Jacob’s inflatable flock and the Pythonesque animated Sphinx head add a little seasoning to proceedings, further delighting an already pretty delighted audience.
Everton fans, such as this reviewer, will be impressed by the widescreen scale of theatre impresario/club chairman Bill Kenwright’s touring production. They may still reserve a wistful moment to reflect on what might have been had he pumped comparable sums of money into his beloved but ailing club this closed-season.
Back to the narrative, such as it is. This loose story of betrayal, revenge and redemption is really just a convenient thread on which to hang the bright musical baubles. The songs comprise the real substance of the show, and a large portion of many people’s formative musical experiences into the bargain.
In between vapid plot points, the big standards are churned out: 'Any Dream Will Do', 'Jacob and Sons', 'Close Every Door' are like so many musical love missiles. Resistance is futile in the heat of their unsubtle but all-enveloping friendly fire.
The standout turn has to be from the wonderfully ludicrous Pharaoh, played by Adam Jarrell, who curls his lips and hips around the 'Song of the King' with considerable Elvis-ish chutzpah.
Tim Rice’s lyrics frequently delight with their impressively dogmatic literalism. To rhyme 'Rameses' with 'knees' for example is quite something. To have coined the line 'I shall take them all for a ride / after all they have tried fratricide', however, puts him on a giddy par with the awfully great poet, William McGonagall.
One can only guess that his cheek was full of tongue when he scribbled some of this delicious doggerel down on the back of a silk napkin. Such unintentional lyrical hilarity matters little to the delighted audience, however, who gobble up every hook, line and stinker voraciously.
And at the end of the slight and slightly silly storyline, the cast return and do all the songs back to back all over again. Stripped from the thin bind of the narrative, it becomes a gloriously kitsch megamix of sparkle, tat and kerosene-fuelled karaoke.
By the end and the fifth (or is it 500th?) rendition of 'Any Dream Will Do', and as the show reaches its fourth and final ending, the rather likeable Keith Jack actually looks relieved, grateful even, that he’s made it through opening night. He coyly thanks the hollering hordes in a way that makes him even more likeable than any veteran of the reality TV process should be.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat is impervious to conventional critique, such is its longevity and enduring appeal. It’s the jazz-hands equivalent of another Stones tour. It is big, dumb and hugely popular, and people have long since stopped questioning whether or not it’s artistically valid. The show’s the thing here, and boy, what a show.