London Palladium – until 8 September 2019
We love a starry debut, especially on opening night in a huge theatre: a 21-year-old not yet through drama school making a stonking, belting first professional appearance in a title role. We get on our feet: can’t help it. Cynicism melts, especially in musical theatre where the energy, the leaping and twirling and singing-while-dancing and sheer bodily skill brings a lump to your throat at even the blandest show.
So Laurence Connor knew what he was doing when he cast young Jac Yarrow in the role more often awarded to existing celebrities: Joseph is a story about youthful dash, innocence and courage, its school-play origins in are still at its core and deliberately underlined in this zippy new production. Giving it such a young star underlines its freshness and fun, and Yarrow does not let his director down. When he comes to the end of his big number behind bars, affirming “Children of Israel are never alone!” we cheer. And it’s all the cleverer an effect for Connor’s staging it – in contrast to the previous relentless cheerfulness of the show – with one of the few moments of sharp contemporary anxiety: real children trapped behind him, on the iron bars.
Mind you, you need troupers as well: the Elvis Pharaoh who bursts on us deafeningly in the second half is Jason Donovan, and the peerless Sheridan Smith is the narrator, frolicking and clowning and gagging, whipping a false beard on and off to be Jacob, every inch the manic primary-school cheerleader as she encourages and leads a wonderfully child-heavy cast (there are 32 of them in rep: on press night little Potiphar stole his moment, as well he should).
As I say, it began as a school musical about the biblical story of Joseph, his jealous brother’s and the prophetic dreams that saved Egypt from famine. It belongs in the playful youth of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, a stage of life when pastiche is mischievous fun, energy raw and you can get away with lines like: “All those things you saw in your pyjamas/Were a long range forecast for your farmers.”
Lloyd Webber’s inalienable romanticism could already soar easy as a bird into songs like ‘Any Dream Will Do’, and his sense of parody in the developing show include styles from Country and Western to Maurice Chevalier (“Ah, zose Canaan days”), bubblegum pop and retro tap numbers to that gold-plated Elvis moment here awarded to Pharaoh Donovan. Of the latter, the only snag is that unlike the excellent verbal clarity of the rest, it is entirely impossible to follow his growly-rock account of his dreams. But if you bring a child not yet familiar with the Bible stories of the seven years harvests, shame on you anyway.
So it’s pure pleasure, in energy and design (Morgan Large has more fun than is decent, what with Egyptian slavers on tricycle-powered camels, a 15ft gold Anubis statue that mimes with a guitar, and hieroglyphs including beefburgers. The coat itself is magnificent, with echoes of Edina Monsoon’s taste in OTT Lacroix). Sheridan Smith frolics with lunatic competence, a windmill of energy (see her give the Pharaoh a shoulder rub! Observe herself wildly flinging herself at poor Joseph as Mrs Potiphar in a leopardshkin rug, head and all). Dance styles draw from Riverdance to Breakdance and most stops in between. Fun is had.
box office lwtheatres.co.uk to 8 September