by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ith Joseph, you're jumping the shark if your camels are cavorting. That's why it's reassuring when Clarissa Grace -- who plays the central role of the Narrator in the current touring production -- says, "We have a camel. I don't think it's a dancing camel."
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (at the INB Center, Nov. 30-Dec. 3) may be a Bible-based musical that's fun for the whole family, but with the comic book colors and narrative style of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's treatment, there's a danger of the silliness quotient rising too high. Pharaoh thinks he's the second coming of Elvis; Joseph's eleven brothers lament his faked "death" with a country song that turns into a hoedown; and just when Joseph is thrown into a jail cell and things look especially bleak, everybody decides to explode into a disco dance.
The Narrator gets second billing, but with all that activity going on, why does this show need a narrator at all? For Grace, it has to do with condensing and softening the story. "It's an intricate narrative, drawn from several chapters of the Bible," she says. "So I'm there to bridge the gaps."
More important, the Narrator helps blunt some of the seriousness. The story of Joseph involves jealousy, attempted murder, slavery, false accusations and jail time -- but by introducing these episodes briefly and treating them with a light touch, a kid-friendly narrative approach helps keep the action non-threatening.
For Grace, however, three moments in particular need to register with the audience as more solemn: a family betrayal, a false imprisonment and a family reunion. "In 'Poor, Poor Joseph,' he's sold to the Ishmaelites and his brothers run off with his coat dipped in goat's blood" to deceive his father Jacob into thinking that his favorite son has been killed, she says. "Another moment is when Potiphar has him thrown into a cell and he's treated like an animal." (Potiphar's wife thought Joseph looked awfully cute in just a loincloth; when he spurns her advances, though, she makes a false accusation of rape, and Joe goes to the slammer.)
And even the comic world where everyone walks like an Egyptian has its emotional payoff: "Obviously, 'Song of the King' [Pharaoh's Elvis parody] is over the top," Grace says, "but there's that moment late in the show when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. I find it very moving -- it gives me goosebumps every night."
In the fall-and-rise story arc of Joseph himself, and in the brothers' sinfulness and eventual repentance, there's plenty of room for actors to portray some character development. But how does a character named the Narrator show any dynamism? Grace has developed some subtext for herself. "In the beginning, I'm your typical narrator -- I'm reading from a book, I'm telling a story," she says. "But my character choice, as the story progresses, is that I get lost in my dreams. Basically, whatever you see onstage is what I'm thinking in my head. I'm a little bit more involved with the story, both physically and emotionally, than someone who's just reading a book."
Grace, who's been on this tour for three months, spent a week as the Narrator with a previous tour in which Patrick Cassidy -- the younger half-brother of David, of Partridge Family fame -- starred as Joseph. Somewhat like Donny Osmond (who starred in the 1999 film), Cassidy has become identified with the role, so Grace obviously gained some valuable experience.
But with its pop-rock-oldies-country-disco-calypso mishmash of musical styles, Joseph demands versatility from its singers. For the vocal part of the Narrator, says Grace, "you have to have legitimate range on top -- soprano on top -- but you also have to be able to belt it."
Grace, for example, solos in "Pharaoh Story," the rock anthem that opens Act Two (in which anybody who can help the Big Guy interpret his dreams "could be famous, could be a star"). But she also shares a ballad called "Any Dream Will Do" with Joseph. Though its lyrics seem fuzzy -- the lights are dimming and the world is waiting, though we're not sure exactly what for -- Grace suggests that the lines' varied applicability is a measure Joseph's widespread appeal.
And the "Dream" is significant, she says: "Our director, Dallett Norris, pointed out that a lot of people go through life without any kind of dream at all -- they forget what they're passionate about. What Joseph and the Narrator are saying in that song is that it doesn't matter how big or small or crazy your dream is -- just have a goal, have a purpose in your life."
The singer-dancers in Webber and Rice's musical take a lot of liberties with a story that we were first taught back in Sunday school (Genesis 37-46, to be exact). "More conservative theater-goers are not quite sure what to make of the funny moments," says Grace. "For the first 20 minutes or so, you can just feel them thinking, 'Can we laugh here?'
"But by the end of the show, the joy is just so infectious, it's impossible to leave the theater without smiling. We've been getting a standing O every night."
Even with all that adulation, it can't be easy for an actor to maintain Joseph's sense of child-like wonder over the course of a long tour. But Grace has her ways: "I have something I do before the show -- if I possibly can, I peek out at the audience, just one or two faces. And I remind myself that these people have paid to see the show, and that they may never have seen it before."
Grace emphasizes the child-like nature of the fun that Joseph offers. "I want people to realize, when they come into the theater, that it's a fun show," she says. "Let the little kid inside you come out when you watch it. Don't expect a Miss Saigon or a Les Miz, something that's really heavy -- just sit back and relax and let it entertain you."
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat plays the INB Center, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd., on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 pm,; Friday, Dec. 1, at 8 pm; Saturday, Dec. 2, at 2 pm and 8 pm; and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets: $30-$52.50. Visit www.bestofbroadwayspokane.com or call 325-SEAT.
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