Envy. Prophecy. Betrayal. Disco?
One synagogue musical has it all.
Beth Tfiloh Community Theatre held an outdoors, socially distanced performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” Aug. 2 in the parking lot of the Beth Tfiloh Middle School. Tickets were only available to members of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.
A retelling of the biblical story of Joseph, who rose to wealth and power in Egypt after being sold into slavery by his envious brothers, the show originally began as a musical piece for the Sunday school of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s children, said Diane Smith, the play’s director and the co-artistic director of BTCT. It gradually evolved into a 65-minute theatrical production, depicting Joseph’s journey through a series of musical numbers that each emerge from distinct genres. The musical’s use of these different genres — including a country and western song, a Calypso/Reggae song, a disco ditty and one number sung in French accents — was intended to keep the audience engaged, Smith said.
According to Smith, BTCT, which normally organizes a play each summer, had originally planned to stage a production of the Broadway version of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” However, with COVID-19, Smith decided that “Mermaid” was too big a production to effectively stage outdoors and too long a show (at two-and-a-half hours) to ask an audience to sit through at the start of August. She opted instead for the sort of smaller and more feasible production with fewer technical elements that “Joseph” represented.
Michael Contreras, who plays the titular Joseph, said he was “excited that we were able to even do it, and to keep the arts alive, and to keep it going even though we are in these difficult times. It was great to do it and to do it safely.”
Cast members wore face shields at all times, Smith said, and face masks when they were not singing. They also wore tie dye gloves, in keeping with the technicolor theme, and equipment was sanitized after each rehearsal and performance.
Audience seating in the parking lot was organized to ensure that different household units of up to six people would be spaced 10 feet apart from each other, and attendees were encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs.
Rehearsals began mid-June, Smith said, with a cast that was primarily composed of adults with a few high school students. Because the actors wore face masks and were outside, each cast member also wore a microphone to amplify their voices. In addition to the cast, the “Joseph” team also included two musical performers manning a piano and drums and a crew of four working to move props around.
Cast member Hannah Elliot of Pikesville, a former member of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, played one of the show’s two narrators. She began participating in BTCT productions in between her semesters at Tulane University, and this year’s run of “Joseph” was her fourth show with the group.
“I’m just so impressed that Beth Tfiloh is putting on this production this summer,” Elliot said in an interview prior to opening night. “It’s already a huge challenge and a huge undertaking to put on a musical production under any circumstances. So the fact that they have been able to successfully navigate all of these unprecedented conditions this summer and be able to put on an outdoor performance is really something that I’m proud of and they should be proud of as well.”
Cast members had to learn their songs over Zoom sessions, Elliot said, which meant they “had to have a lot of accountability and really learn their part of their harmonies on their own.”
The recent heat wave proved a challenge of its own, especially since the cast had to rehearse in PPE gear. While acknowledging it has been difficult, Elliot emphasized the production has been sincerely rewarding, saying the “show has really come together in a way that will be very special for anyone who gets to see it.”
Currently in its 15th year, BTCT serves as a place where Beth Tfiloh students, alumni and other community members can be part of a theatrical production while still observing Shabbat, Smith said, as other theaters commonly stage productions on Fridays and Saturdays. BTCT was originally established by Evan Margolis, the organization’s co-director and an alumnus of Beth Tfiloh. Wanting to give back to Beth Tfiloh, he broached the subject of a community theatre to Zipora Schorr, Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School’s director of education, Smith said, who gave the project her blessing.
One of Smith’s favorite aspects of “Joseph,” she said, is how “less is more.”
“You don’t have to have a huge set,” Smith said. “You don’t have to have huge fancy costumes. You can do it with costume pieces and props and a simple set.
“Because the story is beautiful,” Smith continued. “And if you start clogging up the story with bulky pieces of scenery and huge costumes that really don’t promote the show at all, then it distracts from the beautiful story that you’re trying to tell.”