There's a lot that's changed in the world since Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber turned their shorter original 1968 production of Joseph into a fully-fledged musical that's been popular ever since. And just like the best Shakespeare, it's timeless enough to be re-envisaged for the modern day. 

In 1975, a young and vulnerable-looking Mark Holden starred as Joseph in the then-newly established Seymour Centre in Sydney (this reviewer was there, and can still recite the entire soundtrack end-to-end from memory). There have now been plenty of worthy re-imaginings of Joseph across the decades, but today in a world of narcissistic online self-promotion, selfies and exuberant (and often encouraged) entitlement, the sympathy that audiences might have once felt for the lead character, now gives way to recognition that the earnest earlier interpretations appear dated in the 21st century.

In the 1970s, the world was a bit more 'god-mad'. Sister Janet Mead had a worldwide smash hit with The Lord's Prayer,  Jesus Christ Superstar made Him cool in a hippie kind of way, and bible stories were being taught in schools, Catholic or otherwise. Audiences knew the parables well to some extent, and seeing them come to life as a lavish 'rock' production was enthralling (again, Catholic or otherwise).

To summarise (spoilers ahead), from the Book of Genesis, Joseph has 11 brothers who are jealous of him, and tire of his musings of being 'born for higher things than you'. They subsequently sell him into slavery. While in the service of an Egyptian captain (Potiphar), Joseph catches the eye of the captain's wife (which leads to further difficulties). But Joseph eventually prophesies to the Egyptian Pharaoh about an upcoming famine (God gave him intuitive dreams, you see) and the Egyptians subsequently survive the famine following Joseph's advice. Pharaoh elevates Joseph to high office, just as Joseph predicted to his brothers years ago.

The famine however has not been kind to Joseph's family, so they head to Egypt to find food. And here comes the payback. Not recognising him, Joseph undertakes to test the brothers to see if they have changed their jealous disposition.

The retelling of this story today could appear too didactic (as per the Bible's intention), so this production plays on its longevity and audience familiarity with the musical, appearing not to take itself too seriously, but in a seriously professional manner. Paulini, as the narrator, dons several costumes in an almost magical fashion, to play various characters, one being Jacob (Joseph's Dad), by merely slipping on an old coat and fake beard. So too are some surprising dual roles. Potiphar for example is played by one of the younger performers, jealous of his wife's desire for Joseph.

The show carries the air of campfire story-telling, a perspective set in the first scene, where the narrator has gathered a number of young performers around to begin the show. 

In all, this makes the musical perfect for our time. Joseph's self-righteousness annoyed his brothers with his disposition of superiority, his self-importance fed their jealousy. If he could take selfies and post to TikTok, he would. But ultimately both his brothers and Joseph find redemption for their failings. This is told with a level of consciousness within the production, the fourth-wall is often broken, seeking to thoroughly entertain, while poking fun at the manner of doing so.

The showstoppers remain. Close Every Door To Me remains a song of deep despair and helplessness, which within the context of this imagining, might have lost some of its power, although the delivery has not. Pharaoh's Song Of The King is played for laughs and retains much of the Elvis-like manner written into the original telling. It's a highlight.

This is the production from London's West End, and is a credit to the local Australian cast and crew. The costuming is awesome, staging and lighting superb. The musical arrangements are modern and pumping, while the stylised pieces (There's One More Angel in Heaven, Those Canaan Days, Song of the King and others) remain true to the original and do the show justice.    

The production is wild, colourful, somewhat camp in parts, superbly entertaining and an ultimate joy to experience. See it twice.

LIMITED SEASON 'til 16 April.

Capitol Theatre Sydney


(images: supplied, Daniel Boud)