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Genesis, Part Three

Pumpkin Theatre Shows They Know that Pop Musicals, Unlike the Bible, do Not Age Gracefully

Dreamcoat Version 3.0: Brent Bell and Lauren Spencer-Harris try to put a 21st century twist on the Old Testament.

By John Barry | Posted 12/25/2002

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

By Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber

There are several good reasons for taking in Pumpkin Theatre's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for kids. If you're short, you probably won't have to sit on a phone book to see over the person in front of you. If you've got to be in bed by 9, this 60-minute one-act will let you do just that. And if you're looking for a polished, professional musical, Pumpkin Theatre includes some of the best performers--and one of the best choreographers--in local theater.

For the plot of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1968 musical, see Genesis, chapters 37 to 46. This chronicles Joseph's trials and tribulations, which eventually led him and his relatives from Canaan to Goshen. Joseph starts out at 17, when his father gives him most-favored-son status, along with a coat of many colors. His brothers don't much like that; they wind up selling him into slavery to an Egyptian named Potiphar. Things begin to look bad. Potiphar's wife, a scorned woman of easy virtue, frames Joseph for attempting to have his way with her, which lands him in the slammer. He stays there until his gifts as a dream interpreter catch the notice of the pharaoh. Joseph's fortunes take a turn for the better; he becomes the pharaoh's right-hand man, and, finally, brings his brothers over from Canaan.

Joseph was written to amuse and revitalize this original tale, but over the last three decades, the joke has changed a little. What's not in Webber's original equation is that pop musicals, unlike the Bible, do not age gracefully. In 1968, Joseph was intended to give an old story a new twist. Now the new twist is an old story. What's the point in parodying biblical figures as rock icons when guys like Ozzy or Mick are doing such a great job of parodying themselves? The aging Age of Aquarius is populated with sphinxes and pharaohs of its own. And compared to some of them, Abraham looks like a spring chicken.

What makes this production most interesting is that, in some cases, the characters themselves seem to have aged. In the original Joseph, and in the film starring Donny Osmond, the Pharaoh was played as an Elvis Presley lookalike--presumably an earnest allusion to his status as king of rock and roll. Well, things have changed. In this production, Matthew Bowerman recreates the Pharaoh as a spindly, geeky Elvis impersonator with an oversized wig. Joseph himself, meanwhile, has not emerged from the late '60s unscathed. In Brent Bell's portrayal, he emerges as a slightly stoned, clueless Robert Plant, complete with curly locks and a bewildered, beatific smile.

Lauren Spencer-Harris, as the storyteller who presents the tale, comes closest to setting a tone for this production. Her character has the energy and enthusiasm to guide the audience through the story, but there's a cheerfully cynical, and even prurient, undercurrent to her retelling. This isn't to say that this production is an attempt to depart radically from the original. It's just that by now, Webber's "contemporary" reworking of the Old Testament is a little outdated, and director/choreographer Todd Pearthree is ready to poke at it from different angles. You need a sharp eye to catch all the clever touches: They include a talking sphinx, a box of Camel cigarettes with chorus-girl legs, and a moveable heaven on wheels. Webber deserves credit, of course; so does the Old Testament. In the end, though, what is most impressive is that the Pumpkin Theatre has tapped into a considerable pool of local talent to deliver a musical for children that can compete with the best that Baltimore has to offer.

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