Fringe Online 2020
Directed by David Mallet, written by Tim Rice and Michael Walsh for the screen. Screenplay’s by Nicholas D Knowland. Produced by Lloyd Webber Andy Picheta, Nigel Wright, Austin Shaw. Streamed till April 5th.
Billed as Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s streaming his musicals on The Shows Must Go On YouTube for 48 hours as his contribution to the live-streaming festival that theatreland has unleashed to all of us in isolation. We’re even going to get Lloyd-Webber’s ill-fated collaboration with Alan Bennett, By Jeeves. That’ll be worth revisiting.
So far they seem billed in chronological order. Jesus Christ, Superstar follows this 1999 production, also written with Tim Rice: the film of the 1968 breakthrough Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat stars Donny Osmond in the title role with a mesmerizingly warm voice, though in musicals unlike the tale, everyone else is pretty well as hot.
Directed by David Mallet, with screenplay by Tim Rice and Michael Walsh, and Nicholas D Knowland’s star-bright cinematography, it’s a vivid mix of school dullness and postcard-bright pop-up colours that overlap in both the school and the intercutting of school reactions at the halfway point and bookending the enthusiasm.
There’s of course some neat doubling as starting with the headmaster and all masters turning into Jacob and Sons.
It’s certainly an inspired idea to take one of the darker moment of Biblical silliness – a father’s blatant favouritism spawning jealous backlash – an turn it into a family musical. Even more surprising when you think it’s 1968, year of revolutions. Lloyd-Webber show what they’d go on to do in Jesus Christ, Superstar so consummately too – parody various musicals styles from French café and rock and roll to calypso. Such numbers as ‘Jacob and sons’ and the star-making ‘Any Dream Will Do’ are less parodic, more redolent of a gloriously memorable talent of Lloyd-Webber in his prime.
The tale of how kidnapping Joseph – who should know better than to prophesy all his brothers will bow down before him – and selling him into slavery, faking his death, and his subsequent fortunes, are proverbial. What makes this production memorable and seamless is the non-stop music and vocal and cinematic quality not to mention comic acting.
There’s lots of sly humour, especially at the expense of power figures. Jacob’s patriarchal assumptions are neatly guyed, as are the Pharoh’s. There’s an even sharper nod to these in the 1999 filmed production than originally.
And Joseph’s arrogance seems asking for it: ‘he’s really very dim’. Tim Rice has neatly stitched motivation and resolution in a way children of all ages will respond to. Children get jealousy.
Osmond shows how his ardent youthful tenor hasn’t deserted him, and indeed has a golden middle register and crystalline diction. He plays a strong straight-man with an innocence baffled that’s endearing. Vocally he’s peerless in this. His slow ballads are heart-stopping.
Maria Friedman is terrific as the narrator having almost as much to do as Joseph. From the opening her voice low down in intimate sotto-voce reminds you of those singers who at their best worked with Lloyd-Webber. She’s also very funny when a snake sharing a well with the dispatched Joseph pops up. Friedman’s quite stunning from such intimacy soaring in high soprano lines. Richard Attenborough is called upon to sing just once, but inevitably acquits himself like a perplexed Chris Kringle.
Robert Tonti’s Elvis-like Pharoh is a memorable snake-hipped event, and Ian MacNeice as well as luckless tubby Potiphar and siren Joan Collins as a mute but far from static Potiphar’s Wife who causes Joseph’s jailing (her seduction failing he’s still clapped in irons). Collins sends herself up in style.
Two comic roles – Christopher Biggins’ ill-fated Baker and Alex Jennings’ happier Butler seems luxury casting. They’re superb if brief. The upbeat ensemble ‘Go go go Joseph’ is generous to quite a few singers, interspersed with minor-keyed prophesies and much else: a musically grateful wide-ranging number.
It’s Joseph’s prophesy of their fates that reaches Pharoh who make shim his Number two when he explains another dream, and the rest – the brothers coming to Egypt, is neatly accelerated. The dance routines never outstay their welcome, the visuals – invoking a Busby Berkeley vertically at one point – are snappy and astonishingly rich in colour. Not quite what you’d imagine behind school curtains. The school itself is enchanting and the credits generous and explanatory.
The sons too are often particularly fine. Nicolas Colicos as Reuben has sot to do with a fine high baritone in for instance the country-and-western clopping ‘There’s one more angel in heaven’ with its wonderful insincerity. Jess Blumenkrantz as Simeon gets to plead for the cleverly framed Benjamin (Nick Holmes) and is as good. David J Higgins (Levi), Shaun Henson’s Naphtali, Patrick Clancy’s Issacher, Martin Callaghan a menacing Asher, Sebastian Torkia’s Dan, Michael small’s Zebulun, Peter Challis’ Gad, and Jerry McIntyre’s Judah all have a vivid spot to shine. And Amanda Courtney-Davies’ apache dancer out of all dancers deserves special mention.
This is pretty definitive as a filmed production, but of course the show goes on being produced and this straight-to-video productions streamed here is an inspiration to those whose productions have halted but will revive.
Apart from an early student work, this is how it began. A salutary reminder of how a great musical talent and collaboration started; with a superbly poised lyricist. Lloyd Webber possibly owed Rice his direction, and at their best they’ve proved not like Joseph number two, but number one.
It’s streamed on The Shows Must Go On – Stay Home #WithMe.