No Business Like Joe Business

Beck Center's Joseph resembles a slightly out-of-hand Sunday school picnic.

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Some people like their Bible stories served straight, with no frills. Others require florid and sexy embellishment, with large dollops of DeMille-type extravaganza and heavy breathing. The culturally inclined may prefer their Authorized Version refined by Richard Strauss high jinks for coloraturas. Then, there are those who like their Bible set to soft rock music and gyrating ragamuffins. For the latter, Beck Center has provided one of the prime examples in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Originally written to be performed as a school play in England by precocious young composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, it was later appropriated by big-time producers and turned into a Vegas-type spectacle with buff dancers, an Adonis boy-toy Joseph played by an Osmond or some other teen dream, and a beefcake Elvis imitator as Pharaoh. There are scads of precocious tykes, recruited from various choirs in each city, to fill the seats with proud parents.

Those who attend Beck's Joseph need not fear encountering this high-pressure, loinclothed, Vegas-inflected camp. Instead, it's "Camp Joseph," a literal camp where the wholesome counselor serves as narrator to entertain her darling charges. A comfortably plump de-sexed Joseph, who looks like he might be anyone's cousin, serves for the usual hip-swiveling young pinup.

Replacing the high-powered dancing are sweetly rueful attempts at athletic synchronization, including Joseph's brothers forming a human pyramid. The stage seems charmingly peopled by the local gymnastic team, in fluorescent-colored overalls and T-shirts.

In a clever piece of perverse whimsy, the regulation high-powered Elvis Pharaoh has given way to a spherical Chubby Checker, surrounded by half a dozen cheerleading cuties.

Ancient Canaan and Egypt take on the qualities, in turn, of a teenage sock hop, a local high school production of Oklahoma!, and a very bubblegum-flavored French cafe. None of this is to the show's detriment, since it was never intended to be literal to the Bible or DeMille. Neither, though, was it meant to be the gaudy Vegas extravaganza it became on its American tour; nor does it need an Osmond or a dancing pyramid, for that matter, to charm.

First-time director Kevin Joseph Kelly and his eager crew have given the show an indefinable sweetness and innocence, which makes it click on the level of a slightly out-of-hand Sunday school picnic. Only a curmudgeon could fail to be won over by R. Scott Posey's homespun charisma; as a matter of fact, his fan club, the Posey-Ites, was in full force. Borderline adorable, and a continent unto himself, was Wendell McDowell's eye-rolling, finger-snapping Pharaoh. Offering an extra dimension of vibrant blond perkiness was Laurel C. Held's camp counselor narrator.

Rice and Webber's approach to the Bible in their two operas, lifted from each of the testaments, has little to do with the good book's Jehovah and everything to do with their title character's obsession with stardom. Narcissism has replaced piety, it seems, making for better show business.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, through January 3, at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

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