The first post-pandemic run – as opposed to one night concerts and events – at the foremost Variety Theatre in the land needed to be a humdinger really didn't it. Well, so it proves, with a triumphant remounting of this 2019 staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's adored family classic. It is an absolute pleasure to report that this year's iteration is bolder, brighter, and just plain better, than ever.
Nobody goes to Joseph for the subtlety but when Laurence Connor's production premiered two years ago, it felt slightly unbalanced by the omnipresent barnstormery of Sheridan Smith's focus-pulling turn as the Narrator. The new leading lady (a spectacularly good Alexandra Burke, and more on her shortly) still very much commands centre stage but, while wonderfully engaging, feels less overwhelmingly eager to please, giving both the material and her fellow performers more chance to breathe and shine.
The result is a much more cohesive, satisfying overall show, one that serves Rice and Lloyd Webber's eclectic, witty, catchy score magnificently well. It's also easier now to appreciate the outstanding technical elements of the lavish staging. From the enormous camel-bicycle hybrids that swagger woozily across designer Morgan Large's earthily colourful sets to the star-filled magic of Jac Yarrow's Joseph's first appearance (stunning lighting by Ben Cracknell), to the inspired use of a troupe of super-charged kids to play Joseph's smallest brothers and fellow prison captives, the inventiveness constantly delights and surprises.
Never is this more evident than in Joann M Hunter's sensationally versatile choreography. Street dance, tap, line dancing, a riotous can-can bursting through a scene of monochrome misery for Joseph's impoverished brothers, it's all here, and it's all glorious. Number after number builds exquisitely before popping in a frenzy of energised ecstasy. This is probably the nearest Joseph will ever come to being a full-out dance show, and a tightly drilled ensemble give it their rip-roaring all, while simultaneously delivering exhilarating vocal harmonies. John Cameron's sparkling orchestrations sound fresh as paint, played by a terrific band under the baton of John Rigby.
Two years ago this was Jac Yarrow's first professional job and he was vocally impressive and likeable, but in the intervening time his Joseph has acquired a cheek, charm and depth that genuinely makes one long to see what direction his career takes in the future. You're also unlikely to ever hear his plaintive ‘Close Every Door To Me' performed as movingly or to such a crescendo of full-throated intensity as it is in the roof-rattling rendition on offer here.
Jason Donovan has also returned as Pharaoh and, if he struggles a bit with singing his Elvis-lite number, he has turned up the camp factor considerably, to satisfying comic effect. His performance is now probably nearer to his headlining turn in Priscilla than to his almost legendary Joseph on this very stage back in the 90s: basically, it works.
Alexandra Burke is a knockout success as the Narrator. Combining a beguilingly pure, soaring belt with a smattering of distinctive soulful riffs, she is, as expected, vocally thrilling in the role, as well as being a joyful, high precision dancer. What may come as a surprise, however, is how irresistibly funny she is: whether bumping elbows with her pint-sized storytelling helpers, vamping it up as Potiphar's predatory wife (one of this version's USPs is having the Narrator take on multiple roles) or donning a limp and a stoop to play Joseph's chummy jailer, she's witty, playful and magnetic. This isn't just "celebrity casting", it's an authentic star performance.
In a further stroke of casting genius, Linzi Hateley (from the 1990 Palladium version) replaces Burke at selected performances, and if that doesn't make it worth going to see this exhilarating crowdpleaser more than once then I don't know what does. The unbridled joy surging through this most beloved of houses feels like balm for the soul and spirit. This is uplifting, glittering entertainment, entirely worthy of the London Palladium, and what was previously an endearing spectacular has become something to utterly love.