Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Dance Party: One of Egypt's Millionaires

If you are in need of a bit of an ego boost (even a pretend one), get into a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and play the part of Jacob. He is the patriarch of the piece, father to 12 sons and, in our production, husband to six wives (but unlike Henry VIII's six wives, these gals all adore their husband). At various times during the play, all 18 family members, plus the mother and son who provide the structure of our story, spend a good bit of time singing Jacob's praises. And I get to stand there and listen. Twenty full-throated voices belting adulation is good for the soul.

But I wouldn't wish the scratchy beard on anybody. You really cannot play that venerable old Hebrew Jacob without one, and as I joined the cast very late, I had no opportunity to grow one (mine is not bad, as I proved a couple of years ago when playing Polonius in North Carolina). Well, our costumer would not have wanted me to attempt to grow my own beard anyway, as I was also cast in the small but pivotal role of Potiphar, a rich Egyptian who tosses Joseph into jail for philandering with his wife. It is this part which provides this week's Dance Party.

Potiphar's song is a perky little ditty with a snazzy softshoe tempo, reminiscent of a Music Hall song, and though it is quick and breezy, it has a bit of importance in the overall structure of the score. It is the second of the pastiche numbers with which Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice sprinkled their show. In the course of the piece, we get a calypso number, a French boulevard tune, a country-western song, even an homage to Elvis; Potiphar's Song is one which lets the audience know they are going to be entertained with a variety of musical styles in Joseph.

My scratchy old LP of the original cast recording of Joseph, the one starring Bill Hutton and Laurie Beechman which first reached Broadway in the early 80s, has the actor playing Potiphar sing his song as a solo. I doubt it's done that way much anymore, as it's a bit awkward for the character to be singing about himself in the third person, and anyway, the number as a whole works better, I think, when the lyrics are divided among the cast. Our director made some decisions about which lyrics should be sung by Potiphar, which by the narrator, and so on, and I think it tells the story well; you will see in the clip below the way the story is normally told in other productions these days (ours, as I said, is slightly different).

This clip comes from the official videotaped production of the show, so we can only assume this is the definitive version, according to Lloyd Webber's vision. I find it dull as toast, and thoroughly lacking in the sprightly charm which the number really ought to have. Our hero is being played by Donny Osmond, who played Joseph for several years around the country, and is probably the biggest star ever attached to this slender piece.

For the video, heavy-hitters such as Joan Collins and Sir Richard Attenborough were enlisted to fill out the cast, and the result is a laborious effort.

You would have to describe both Collins, playing Mrs. Potiphar, and Attenborough, playing Jacob, as fairly charm-free. Placing the show in the confines of a schoolhouse auditorium did the show no favors, and I personally feel the addition of so many non-musical performers sinks the video. They surely don't know how to frolic like we do, and Joseph... needs some frolicking. Perhaps you'll drop by our version at Olney Theatre in Maryland to check out our version of Potiphar's Song; until then, take a peak at this overblown production: