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The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” opens with an approximation of a magic trick and that feels appropriate in more ways than one.
The show has the kind of giddy feel you get when you're watching great magic — you're dazzled, confounded and riveted all at once. And magic is the right word for “Joseph” itself. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical is a curiously potent trifle — a Biblical story set to simple tunes. It doesn't strive to make a huge point and, what's even more amazing, it isn't necessarily a religious show. Really, you'd have a better chance at hearing the word “God” at the MTV Video Awards.
But it's a musical that audiences love (multiple requests got it back on the Rep's stage) and it's one that performers can adapt to their abilities. The Rep's version is big and bold and sculpted, much like the physiques of its three stars.
As Joseph, Austin Miller comes in trailing a list of TV credits, but crowds will be no doubt wowed when it comes time in the show for “poor, poor Joseph” to be locked in jail without his coat and without a shirt. If Robert Pattison can boost box office with his British goth look, there's no reason Miller's Charles Atlas-like body can't do the same for the Rep.
Besides that, Miller is a charismatic presence on stage with a big voice. The Rep was smart to cast him in the role.
Jenna Coker-Jones is the Narrator, with sparkly eye shadow and biceps that look as if they were built in a lab. She starts the show as a school marm leading the children's choir (the choir wears school uniforms throughout, which is a nice reminder that Webber and Rice's show began life as a middle school exercise) and ends up as a leader of the ever-wilder “Joseph” circus. Todd DuBail, another buff specimen, is all but disguised as Jacob and Potiphar but his Elvis-like Pharaoh is a scene-stealer, navigating a fine line between cheesiness and a jaw-dropping, infectious performance.
Director Alan Souza isn't afraid of cheese; for that you can bathe in the big dance number with the silver wigs, the white ABBA costumes and disco ball. But Souza has a real knack for staging that's fluid, funny and pronounced without being embarrassing. He's helped in great part by Rafael Colon Castanera's astonishing costumes (he ought to win some kind of design award for Jacob's hat alone) and Charlie Corcoran's set design, which has plenty of dazzle, yet isn't the desert done in neon.
This “Joseph” just obliterates any cynical thoughts you might have. The last image, which finds the title character's coat with one more trick up its sleeve, is so surprising and winning that you wouldn't mind seeing “Joseph” back at the Rep as early as, say, next year.