By Jenny Neyman
Some might be familiar with the Biblical story of Joseph. In a nutshell: His brothers are jealous of his favored relationship with their father and get him shipped off to slavery in Egypt, where his skill at interpreting dreams lands him a position of power with the Pharaoh. Famine drives his brothers to Egypt to seek aid and Joseph must decide whether to help/forgive them. (Spoiler — he does.)
It’s one of the classic Bible lesson stories of the importance of love, responsibility and forgiveness. And dancing camels. And that Elvis was king of more than just rock and roll. And if you want to beg leniency for someone facing execution, do it to a reggae beat. And that subtlety is overrated in a world where neon tie-die and disco music are available.
That’s the Kenai Performers’ interpretation of the story, anyway, as they stage the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” this weekend and next.
“I’ve always loved the show. I thought, in the middle of winter we needed something colorful and warm and sandy. And that’s what we got,” said Terri Zopf-Schoessler, director and choreographer.
Someone not familiar with the show might think a retelling of a Biblical tale set in the desert involving attempted fratricide, exile, slavery and famine might be a depressing affair. Take the hint from “Technicolor” in the title. “Joseph” is an all-in experience — all colors, all styles of music, all singing, all the time.
“It goes from country western up to jazz to just crazy ’70s kind of music, disco, reggae, and all that stuff,” said Lester Steward, who plays Joseph. “It’s a very good, clean, fun time. It’s a great story, very entertaining, especially for children, it’s got bright colors and it’s really fun singing. Plus it really is a great message, about being confident in yourself. And even though things get you down, you have to believe in yourself, and any dream will do.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote the show while still in high school, and it retains that if-some-is-good-more-is-better enthusiasm. Realism is nowhere near as important as entertainment. How can a desert setting be more enticing? If a Crayola box of bright colors replace the washed-out landscape. How can Pharaoh be more awesome? If he’s an Elvis impersonator. How can an Old Testament morality story, where the possibility of death is as omnipresent as difficult names (here’s looking at you Isaachar, Naphtali and Potiphar), be lightened up? If told in up-tempo, upbeat musical styles.
“I love the wide variety of music, I love the upbeat message of it,” Zopf-Schoessler said. “I love the idea that he goes back to his brothers and they all reunite, that’s one of my favorites. And who doesn’t love a dancing camel?”
“I told her that I wanted a camel. I said, ‘I have the Butler sisters (Eli and Selia) and they can dance and be the camel’s legs,’ and that’s about all the direction I gave her. And that’s what came yesterday is that 8-foot camel. It’s amazing,” Zopf-Schoessler said.
Joseph’s coat of many colors, given for his ability to interpret dreams, came about through similar serendipitous means. Someone in the cast said they knew a lady who can quilt, and all of a sudden there was not just one masterwork of pattern and color, but two — one assembled with Velcro that can be torn apart when Joseph is exiled, and one intact version.
“JoAnn Biegel. I’d never met her until the day she walked in with those two gorgeous coats. If you go up close to them, they are so incredible and so intricate, and she made them so they’re 640 degrees when he spins around,” Zopf-Schoessler said.
One thing that did not just come together, seemingly magically out of the ether, is the performances. The show is completely sung, and is a serious musical undertaking.
“This 90-minute singing score called for at least 12 men to sing harmony and solos throughout, not to mention being able to dance and move at the same time, and also included a women’s chorus, children’s choir and three women soloists,” wrote Audra Faris, vocal director, in her program notes. “… None of the songs are what I call simple or easy. There is never a song where only one person is singing. Some songs call for groups to sing with three- to four-part harmony, others include the whole cast singing with harmony, and others are challenging solos to perform.”
Merely assembling a cast capable of such a thing is a feat in a community theater setting, where people have jobs and families and lives beyond the significant time investment required to prepare this show.
“I was told I will never do this show. I would never get 16 men who could sing. And to those people I say, ‘Neener neener,’ because they not only sing, but they sing in some places in five-part harmony,” Zopf-Schoessler said.
“Each performer has demonstrated to me that they are capable of doing this show at a level that far exceeds a small-town expectation. They are excellent,” Faris wrote.
Auditions were held in June and the cast met three times a week throughout July just to work on the vocals before regular rehearsals even began this fall.
“This is almost like a pregnancy. We will have worked, on opening night, eight months on this show,” Zopf-Schoessler said.
It’s paid off.
“I really, really want people to come see the show. I think this is probably one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in, and I’m really proud of my cast,” Zopf-Schoessler said.
And that’s saying a lot, given she’s been involved in theater for most of her life.
“A really, really long time. I stopped counting at 100 shows, and that was years ago,” she said.
Some of her favorite elements of the show are the colorful lights and costumes, Steward’s singing of Joseph’s emotional ballad, and the community theater fun of assembling a diverse group of people and watching them jell together into a cohesive project.
“Listening to Lester when he sings ‘Close Every Door’ and some of the notes he hits. And then watching Justin (Ruffridge, who works at Soldotna Professional Pharmacy), your friendly family pharmacist, dance around in dreadlocks in a Rastafarian cap,” she said.
Steward said he hopes he does the role justice but that he’s ready for an audience.
“It’s been a lot of work — eight months in the making — but I think it’s going to be a great show and I can’t wait for it to start,” he said.
“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will be performed at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays this weekend and next in the Renee C. Henderson Auditorium at Kenai Central High School.
Will the show serve as a pickup from a case of the midwinter blahs? Spoiler: Yes.
“It’s family friendly, it’s fun, it’s 90 minutes of amazing music and you will go out of here smiling and dancing. Those are all really, really good things, especially considering the winter we haven’t had. I don’t know what it was, but this hasn’t been winter,” Zopf-Schoessler said. “There’s sun and there’s palm trees and the camel. You gotta come for the camel if nothing else.”
Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students, military and seniors, available at Curtain Call Consignment and Charlotte’s in Kenai, River City Books in Soldotna, and at the door.