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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat 

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JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

at the Chicago Theatre

Early in act two of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a pompadoured, pelvis-swinging Pharaoh cuts loose with an all-shook-up showstopper about a troubling dream he's had. After he's finished, his Hebrew slave-turned-soothsayer Joseph nervously asks for an encore, punctuating his request with a few Presley moves of his own. "You're a little bit rock 'n' roll," Pharaoh says skeptically. And Donny Osmond, with practiced, perfect timing, gingerly steps out of the role of Joseph and grins his trademark toothy grin, as if to say, "Aw shucks, won't I ever escape my teenybopper image?"

It's a perfect made-for-TV moment--the character-breaking crack-up to prove that celebrities are regular guys too--straight out of one of those glitzy but squeaky-clean variety shows that glutted the airwaves in the 1960s and '70s, like The Andy Williams Show, on which Donny made his TV debut 30 years ago this December, and Donny and Marie, the epitome of calculating family-values kitsch.

Make that the former epitome: it's been knocked off its pedestal by Osmond's latest effort. As the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Old Testament-inspired musical, Osmond has found the perfect vehicle: cheerful, glossy, fast-paced, and empty.

Pharaoh's grudging compliment to the contrary, Donny Osmond is pure bubble gum--sweet, chewy, and insubstantial--and Joseph is a pretty, plastic package for him. Stepping out on his own without any of his siblings--though he does seem to be sporting Marie's hair--Osmond sings with fluid warmth, moves vigorously and gracefully, and fits nicely into costumes that range from a rainbow parachute jacket to, well, practically nothing. (He belts out his big solo, "Close Every Door," clad only in a loincloth, his sweaty torso glistening with sweat as he crouches behind bars. Well, what would a biblical epic be without a little soft-core bondage?) A more charismatic artist would stick out like a sore thumb in this stuff, but Osmond's right at home--he's musically and physically strong enough to center the show and vapid enough not to outshine it.

First presented in 1968 as a 15-minute schoolboys' cantata and gradually expanded over the years to a full-length work at venues ranging from Saint Paul's Cathedral to Broadway to the London Palladium, Joseph takes its story from the last chapters of Genesis, which relate how the Israelites first came into Egypt. The son of the patriarch Jacob, who shows his favor with the gift of a multicolored coat, Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. In Egypt his skill as a dream interpreter propels him to a high position: he prophesies a famine in plenty of time for the government to stockpile food. When the famine drives Jacob's clan to Egypt, Joseph plays some cruel jokes on his brothers, then reconciles with them--on his own terms, of course.

Skimming breezily over the surface, Joseph ignores the tale's religious and historical significance as well as its potential for spiritual or ethical exploration. Instead this is a feel-good kids' entertainment--playful but not particularly witty, and every bit as spectacular as you're entitled to expect at a top ticket price of nearly 60 bucks. Its libretto is dotted with vague and fatuous sentiments along the lines of "Any dream will do" and "You are what you feel"; its peppy, lightweight pop score repetitively drives home simple melodies. Steven Pimlott's Vegas-slick staging hews close to the cardinal rule of bad children's theater: keep it moving so they don't start wondering why there isn't anything there.

The result is sometimes goofily funny (thanks to nonstop clowning that includes bits lifted from the Three Stooges and Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau), insistently energetic (especially Anthony Van Laast's choreography, which ranges from square dancing and apache tangos to 60s go-go moves and 90s MTV action), and extremely well sung. A large and talented adult ensemble--including Johnny Seaton as the Elvis-like Egyptian king, clarion-voiced Janet Metz as the indefatigible narrator, and Chicago's James Harms as a befuddled Jacob--is complemented by a rotating assortment of children's choirs, superbly led by musical director Phil Reno. On opening night the fluty voices and impeccable articulation of Wheaton's Hubble Middle School Select Choir and Oak Park's Lincoln School Chorus proved irresistible.

Designer Mark Thompson has created an impressive and flexible set, including a huge pharaonic visage with negroid features and bright blue eyes that shoots out giant corncobs like a slot machine. It's augmented by whimsical toy sheep, goats, snakes, and buzzards and a fairly spectacular array of costumes ranging from traditional desert garb to the Carnaby Street mod fashions in style when Joseph was first performed almost 30 years ago. This eclecticism far outdoes the "variety" of the score, which makes token use of calypso, country-western, French chanson, English music-hall, and a lengthy burst of late-70s disco for the protracted curtain calls but is most secure when it sticks to the bland bombast that has made Lloyd Webber an outrageous fortune. These soupy, craftily commercial melodies are especially well suited to Osmond's supple, shallow singing. At 35, he proves you're never too old for bubble gum.

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