Tim Rice (Joseph marks the second batch of his songs Kansas Citians have heard in two weeks, after his collaboration with Elton John on Starlight's Aida) and Andrew Lloyd Webber originally wrote this musical pastiche for a holiday party at a British elementary school. As it has been Americanized and Donny Osmond-ized, it has also, several decades hence, been revealed as the test pattern for later Webber scores. Blatantly obvious are passages he used elsewhere in such shows as Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats, not to mention riffs he cops from other sources. (No other composer is so often accused of plagiarism.) This doesn't make Joseph bad, just familiar, and none of this matters anyway when a show is this eager to please.
As Joseph careers from the title character's slavery through his succession to power broker, the show seems perfectly content to eschew its rock-musical longings and hitch its wagon to burlesque. Here there's a reference to Mae West, there a W.C. Fields imitation. If the genre's a bit dusty, damned if polish this thick doesn't spiff it up a bit; there's never a lack of activity to draw your attention. From Randy Winder's inventive lighting (the best example being the psychedelic dance party that closes act one) to Mary Traylor's exotic costuming and R. Keith Brumley's kooky sets, the show wraps itself around you like a tomb. You can try to break out of it, but you're caught. Equally ingratiating are Becky Barta as the matronly yet perky narrator, Charles Hagerty as Joseph, the hunky man-child, and the tornado-voiced Karen Errington, who steals the show with the second act's "Those Canaan Days."
But that's not to say the music is memorable beyond being merely hummable or that Richard Carrothers' direction is anything but obvious. Despite decent uses of the stage's turntable, the tap dancing that opens both acts is hammy dance-recital stuff better left inside doting parents' video cameras. And there's a Mormon Tabernacle Choir thing going on when all cast members sing at once. Joseph may be the biggest musical the dinner theater has ever staged, but its score stalls and sputters in comparison to the terrific tunes of such past mountings as The Music Man or Fiddler on the Roof. It has the zest of a fruity virgin daiquiri but not many calories. Texas stranger: If the idea of Ann-Margret (with her name not only above the title but also a part of the new logo) as Miss Mona, the madam of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, sounds good on paper, onstage it's quite another story. Even with the support of a fiery Avery Sommers as Jewel, Miss Mona's assistant, and a couple of chorus lines of working girls and johns that rouse the heart in a purely respectable way, A-M is F-M: flagrantly mediocre. Her mind-boggling resume includes five Golden Globes, two Oscar nominations and six times in the running for an Emmy (for such classic roles as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire), so Ann-Margret's accomplishments can't be dismissed as camp. Her washed-up vamp in Carnal Knowledge is still searing and painful, and anyone associated with Viva Las Vegas is beyond reproach. But as Miss Mona, the ex-whore who rules the house, she barely registers at all, kittenishly whispering many lines while robotically reciting others. And singing that can fill a movie or television screen (such as that in Bye Bye Birdie) hardly ranges past the orchestra pit in a venue the size of Starlight.
"Twenty-Four Hours of Lovin'" fabulously broadens the show's value, with Sommers reminding the girls that they have to keep themselves as bright and available as an all-night diner. Thommie Walsh's choreography in that number and in "The Aggie Song" (which had the athletes giving nearly full monties) is a lesson on how dance can both advance the story and stop the show. Gary Sandy pulls laughs from his stereotypical sheriff character, elongating certain curse words lest anyone doubt he's seriously pissed off. The show is best thought of as a nugget of 1970s nostalgia (like Grease, which is '70s nostalgia for the '50s) that could benefit from star performances by better star performers. Anyone have Olivia Newton-John's phone number?