Can-can dancing in Biblical times. Hawaiian fruit-hats in a pyramid. There's something deliciously deviant about Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that bring out the bizarre in people. It did in the Hot Shoe Company, when curtains rose — after the obligatory half-hour delay — on their ‘Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours.'
And when you have a production in which the Pharaoh is Elvis, you're certainly talking about a little less conversation, a little more action. Also true to the original, it was sung-through almost completely, and wasn't meant to be a factual recreation of history — it's supposed to be a rollicking good time, fantastic sets and superlative dancing, music that you find yourself joining in with, singing cheerfully off-key — a tongue-in-cheek take on a solemn tale of jealousy and revenge, spiked with that necessary moral about the importance of following one's dreams.
The Hot Shoe did manage some of these things well. The production was directed partly by the late Mitran Devanesan — to whom the performance was dedicated — and later by Yusuf. The music by Timothy Madhukar, in particular, lived up to the demands of Andrew Lloyd Webber scores. The remarkable voice of Arjun Thomas, who played the lead, helped, as he carried songs such as Donny Osmond's ‘Any Dream Will Do' with ease; it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. The dancers, under the tutelage of Jeffrey Vardon, cha-cha-d and salsa-ed and and swayed and twirled, clearly having a ball.
But attempting something as dramatic, with a cast of entirely non-actors, is an enormous leap of faith. So most of the time, the storyline and the dancing went along like lovers after a tiff, nursing bruised egos and uncomfortable in each other's presence.
Jacob, played by Yusuf, was one of the exceptions; he played Joseph's father, an endearing man with a genial twinkle in his eye.
Every dance form known to mankind seemed to pass through that stage over those two hours. That meant corsets, pouffy chiffon skirts, urban street wear, lace, feathered headdresses, slinky cabaret dresses, leg warmers, fruit-hats, hip-hop pants, sweat bands, spandex tights and ballet skirts. In, well, Israel.
Now the thing is, it could have been done. It could have been made a part of the story, merged so well you could never think of a pyramid again without picturing can-can dancers kicking their legs into the air next to it. But that's precisely where the production fell short.
We will make allowances for artistic license, but we draw the line at one of the visions of Joseph's dreams wearing a plastic glow-in-the-dark neon grass skirt.
It's a very busy story, and it didn't help that much if Tim Rice's fantastic lyrics weren't clear, so if you weren't familiar with the story, there was nothing holding it together except the bare bones of the synopsis.
And for a story from the Bible, the musical certainly left more than a few things to be answered by the gods. Why is a baker in biblical times wearing a chef's hat? Why was the mike on backstage, and frantic hisses and whispers heard? Why was narrator Millie clutching a handbag throughout, as though she was just about to dash out the door? (Not that we'd blame her) Why did the same narrator drag a child from the audience onto the stage in the middle of a song, only to unceremoniously leave her there, stranded, till she began to howl in fright and had to be rescued by her elder brother?
Thankfully, the costumes, the sets and the story began to work together by the second half, in the spectacular palace of the Pharaoh, golden and opulent, ominous with the towering sculptures of the jackal-headed Anubis. The dancers, in startling peacock-blue and gold were, hurrah, finally looking the part. The delightful Pharaoh, played by Mark, complete with dazzling white bell-bottoms, the southern drawl and the slicked hair-do, had the chorus girls shrieking and swooning as his lips curled in his famous curl. Clearly, Elvis saves.