Andrew Lloyd Webber has been making the news pretty much every day for the last few weeks, not least for his relentless complaining/campaigning against government regulations that prevented him from opening his new musical Cinderella at full capacity — and then, on the very day he could — from opening it at all, after a member of the company tested positive for Covid the previous weekend (It will now resume performances on August 18, and he’s invited the press to review that performance).
But two other productions of earlier work have now (re)opened on consecutive nights this week. A revamped (and substantially cut-down) version of The Phantom of the Opera took up residency again at Her Majesty’s on Tuesday (though Lloyd Webber had last year assured fans that it would be the “brilliant original” staging that came back after pictures emerged of the original production being stripped out of the theatre, the orchestra has now been slimmed down from 27 to 14, and significant pieces of Maria Bjornson’s original set were no longer in place).
However, last night, at least, saw the 2019 summer revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat return to the London Palladium in a joyous, celebratory evening, albeit a full year later than originally planned and after the start of performances from July 1 to July 12 owing to COVID disruptions to rehearsals.
The fresh-faced (and fresh-bodied) Jac Yarrow reprises the title role that he’d first played in 2019 before even graduating that summer from ArtsEd, and Jason Donovan — who famously made the role his own in a 1991 revival — returns again too in a show-stealing cameo as Pharaoh. In a programme note, director Laurence Connor comments, ‘Whenever I think about this show, I think about the London Palladium, Jason Donovan and the cast recording of that (1991) show. He’s been connected to the piece in a way that I think no one else ever has been.”
That was an iconic performance, to be sure; and the connection is being maintained this year not just with Donovan’s return in a different role, but also Linzi Hateley’s reappearance, at some performances, to reprise her original role of Narrator that she first sang then, too, when Alexandra Burke is unavailable. I definitely plan to return to see her again.
However, not to deny the impact of that production, the one I think of is always Bill Kenwright’s touring version, which toured the UK into its 40th year (and had several West End seasons, too), before being summarily shut down in February 2020. Surely no one has ensured the legacy and theatrical popularity of Joseph more than Kenwright; or its incredibly diligent choreographer and long-time cast member Henry Metcalfe, who played Jacob/Potiphar right up to its last night in Wolverhampton: a performance I attended and met him afterwards (pictured below). He passed away last October.
That adorable production — which played up the homespun storytelling charms of the show — used to employ armies of local kids to act as the choir to the narrator, flanking her on either side of the stage; Steven Pimlott’s 1991 Palladium production did the same thing. The biggest innovation of Laurence Connor’s version thirty years on was to reduce the children to just a mere handful, and also have them double as some of the brothers, while the Narrator also does double (or even triple) service standing in for the patriarch Jacob and other characters.
Some of the spontaneous joy of watching his on stage is inevitably diminished by having fewer of them, though the diminutive and adorably sparky Amber Hodder and Ethan Sokontwe on the gala night both took my eye more than most of the adults. The bio for another kid tells us she has also appeared in Leopoldstadt: there’s nothing like versatility, to go from Stoppard to Lloyd Webber!
On the basis that nothing succeeds like excess, this production otherwise succeeds both luridly and absolutely. It’s like the London Palladium pantomime version of Joseph; the only thing missing is Julian Clary as Potiphar (though he was in the audience last night).
There’s a dancing playfulness to Tim Rice’s lyrics — more than half a century later, still fresh with verbal dexterity and delight — that is echoed in the charm of Connor’s production.
It’s lovely to see Jac Yarrow again, gleaming in his multi-coloured coat (though given stiff competition by producer Michael Harrison’s young son in the audience last night), a still fit Jason Donovan gyrating as a knowing Pharaoh for his single show-stealing solo, and Alexandra Burke (pictured above centre, at last night’s curtain call by me!) bring her powerhouse vocals to the narrator, even if there are times when it feels she is left floundering by the absence of any character to develop, beyond being the audience’s guide to the story.