The next generation of talent is on full display in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Chatswood’s Concourse Theatre, and the immensity of that talent is a little bit overwhelming. Produced by Packemin Youth, Packemin Productions’ new initiative designed to create shows for performers who are 20 or younger, this is a real chance for audiences, cast, and crew alike to find joy in musical theatre.
There has never been a more joyful production of Joseph than this one, or if there has been one it’s hiding. A funny-but-not-quite-silly, largely secular storybook re-telling of the bible story, in the show a Narrator guides us through Joseph’s life, showing his famous coat, his fall from grace and his rise to power. The songs are theatrical-pop, infused by nods to different genres (there’s a Calypso number in the second act, and the Pharaoh looks and sounds like Elvis) and the show is entirely sung-through.
Neil Gooding has a great eye for musical theatre; in his family shows he knows how to attract and direct restless attention and keep little eyes and minds busy. His shows are colourful and fast-paced but never too busy, and his fresh approach to twinkle-in-the-eye comedy is perfect for Joseph, which can never be staged with an entirely straight face.
Here, Gooding is co-directing with Jordan Vassallo, who was his assistant director on the past three Packemin shows, and has acted with the company prior to that — he understands the company’s DNA as deeply as Gooding does, which means that their production is vibrant, well-thought-out, and largely misses the (charming) messiness that crops up in the other corners of past Packemin endeavours. Instead, it’s remarkably solid, and impressively polished. This is furthered by a clean, effective, and simple set by Simon Greer.
For an audience of Australian families, this Joseph is pulsating with liveliness and a real sense of currency and familiarity. Jacob’s family of 12 sons takes a portrait with a selfie stick held aloft by one of the littlest ensemble cast members. During the Western-themed “One More Angel in Heaven” dance number, choreographer Katrina Gooding gives us an Australian Country and Western spin by building in the steps from the enduring Australian Bush Polka, the Heel and Toe. No one fashions themselves ‘old timey’ accents.
The Narrator holds the action together by introducing us to Joseph and compelling the plot along. She’s our exposition and, when she needs to be, our conscience. The role is huge, the biggest in the show. In Australia, the role has been played by Angela Ayers and Tina Arena. In this production, The Narrator is Harmony Lovegrove, a 14 year old The Voice Kids semi-finalist. It is absurd that a 14 year old can carry such a huge part, and can sing with not just power but a mature understanding of nuance and control, but she does, and her voice is pleasingly rich, and she does not falter once.
The brothers, who are so sick of their golden child sibling Joseph that they tear his clothes and throw him in a pit to die before changing their minds and selling him as a slave to travelers bound for Egypt, are comical, likeable ruffians rather than sinister villains. It helps they’re overwhelmingly, charmingly, adolescent — they horse around, exaggerate their irritation with Joseph into something ludicrous, and seem to really maintain an aura of innocence; it’s really hard to dislike them.
They harmonise beautifully in their second act lament “Those Canaan Days,” a French-flavoured wallowing in the despair they face gripped by famine, and it doesn’t even matter that the piece has been re-arranged to better showcase Moran, their father figure, and really the father figure of the whole show as its only recognisable adult. It’s still a smart piece of staging that re-introduces us to the brothers, which is crucial for the next few scenes following.
There’s something of a boyband non-threatening cuteness about Imraan Daniels’ Joseph, fresh-faced and good-looking with a sweep of hair across his forehead, but as he settles into the part he discovers a sense of bewildered gravity in the part, which really is pitched perfectly against the rest of the production. Joseph is never quite beaten down by his imprisonment, and it’s his good nature and quiet sense of self as a character that helps him to survive his worst and thrive in his best. Daniels anchors the show well, and never over-reaches, which is usually where inexperienced young performers fall down in their work.
There are little touches designed for giggles, like the entire ensemble donning sunglasses for “Poor, Poor Joseph,” when the cool factor needs to be upped; the young children posing as goats and sheep; the clever way the ‘gore’ of a slain goat looked like linked sausages and caused a round of laughter rather than upset for any little ones watching; Joseph downing some cocktails in pure fear as the Pharaoh sings about his dreams; Potiphar playing oversized golf with an inflatable ball, hitting it out into the audience.
The applause an opening night was a ringing constant through the curtain call’s “Joseph Megamix” and it’s almost like a drug, the way you leave it impossibly uplifted. What an extraordinary thing, to see young people given such time and such good direction to better themselves and the production around them. What an extraordinary thing to see a show for young people and families that understands how to make a musical sing just as well as, or better than, many of its more high profile industry leaders, filled to the brim with adults.