Saturday, June 6, 2015

Sight, Sound, and Smell Theatre

Christian Broadway.

That’s what they call it. It’s not a term that I made up, though it’s amusing enough to make me wish I had.

I’m referring, of course, to the Sight and Sound Theatre, one of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania’s top tourist attractions. It beats out Dutch Wonderland, the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, and the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society in terms of head shaking-ness. In fact, more than twice as many people visit the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster and its namesake in Branson, Missouri as visit Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson each year. Then again, as many times as I’ve been to Monticello—and it’s measured in the lots—I’ve never had to worry about being downwind from a farting camel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Yes, there was a line in "Take Me Out" about dropping the soap.
I’ve only seen a handful of non-Christian Broadway shows. 1776, Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, The Producers, and so on; all pretty mainstream stuff.  About as edgy as I get was Take Me Out, the 2003 Tony Award winner for Best Play, set in a baseball team’s locker room, complete with wet and naked baseball players showering on stage. (Yes, there was a ”splash zone”.)

I’ve driven by billboards by the Pennsylvania Turnpike for the Sight and Sound Theater about a million times. They promote Sight and Sound’s Old Testament extravaganzas in a graphic idiom that’s more Disney than Deuteronomy.

Sight and Sound is partial to naming its shows after Old Testament A-Listers with short names. Moses, Ruth, and Jonah have made the grade. If history is any guide, Nebuchadnezzar and Melchizedek need to tell their agents not to sit by the phone waiting for a call.

I don’t know what made me decide to see one of the shows in person. Perhaps it was driving by the billboards again and again? Perhaps it’s the fact that I like a lavish Broadway musical as much as the next over thirty, single, and neat guy? Perhaps I thought "How could a million people a year be wrong?"

Whatever the reason, I asked the usual suspects if they wanted to go and they said sure. We all thought it would be a hoot.

We bought our tix online, $67 each, perhaps in subconscious homage to one of the best punchlines ever, “I can’t take 67 more of those!

In a couple of weeks I got an email reminder about the show. It came with this notice, in red.

In 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will be performing construction work on Hartman Bridge Road (PA-896), approximately one-half mile north of our theatre.…this road construction may cause significant travel delays. We strongly recommend planning extra travel time on the day of your show.

Not wanting to miss the curtain as I sat in traffic while construction workers took a shoofly pie break, I telephoned the theater with some questions. I spoke to Alicia, a customer service representative. She was remarkably uninformed. I asked her if she could recommend a detour. She couldn’t. I asked if she knew that PennDOT was planning to work on a Saturday, the day of our show. She didn’t. She had nothing to say other than “you should leave early”.

And for such a Christian place, well, she wasn’t all that friendly. In fact, without too much training she could qualify for a job at the Post Office. Perhaps her caller ID told her that I was a middle-aged hipster doofus wannabe, and a slightly cynical one at that. Perhaps she was just having a bad day.

Since I wasn’t getting anywhere with being a nobody, I tried my luck as a somebody.

I’m a travel blogger, and I was wondering if you had a press kit that I could download. You know, the kind with facts about the theater and its history.

A pause. Yup, she had caller ID.

(Sounding even less impressed)  What do you want to know?

Well, how many seats does the theater have?

2,069. (Silence.)

This wasn’t going anywhere.

Well, what about its story?

It’s on the website. (More silence.)

Golly, she could not only qualify for a job at the Post Office, she could probably even work at the window. She’d be a natural at dealing with customers who don’t have the proper forms and are trying to mail large, poorly wrapped boxes to countries that don’t have any vowels in their names.

Jonathan Groff looking as if he's never had a a potpie noodle in his life.
Instead of asking if they’d ever consider Jonathan Groff, a bona fide Broadway star who happens to be from Lancaster, for a lead role, I gave up.

I mentioned my experience on the phone to my friend Tracy.

I bet they would have been nicer to you if you’d said that you were the pastor of a non-denominational church, she said

Or one that uses snakes in worship, I replied.

We chuckled.

Since Alicia was presumably not in the running to be the theater’s employee of the month, I decided to look at PennDOT’s website to see what was going on. Lo and behold (that sort of biblical lingo comes naturally when you are in the Sight and Sound mode), PennDOT wasn’t even starting the work near the theater until two days after our show.

Apparently Alicia and crew know all about Moses bringing stone tablets down from Mt. Sinai but they don’t know anything about PennDOT issuing press releases from Harrisburg.

The tickets advised us to be 45 minutes early for our 11:00 am show.  Yes, 11:00 am show. Oh right, it’s Christian Broadway!

But seriously, 45 minutes early?  Were there going to be security lines? How much time did they think we needed in the gift shop? They also urged us not to bring packages. Who takes a package to the theater? My friend K. called the theater as we drove there to see if a purse counted as a package. After being on hold for way too long, she finally hung up.

Construction hadn’t started on Route 896, just as PennDOT had promised, so our trip was a breeze. At the sign for the theater, we turned into a bucolic landscape worthy of Capability Brown. When we reached the enormous parking lot we found that attendants in neon yellow were doing an excellent job bringing order to something that wasn’t even close to chaos. One attendant told me to stay on the sidewalk and not walk diagonally across the parking area. Presumably the theater would get all kinds of bad press if I were run over by a church bus.

The place is enormous, you could even say Vegas-like in its scale and aura of kitsch. We went on a hot, sunny day, so the Vegas connection was even more apt. When we arrived lots of people were milling around in the plaza in front of the theater having their photos taken with Lion and Lamb Fountain.

After you do your best to absorb the enormity of the place, you notice the diversity of the crowd. It’s not like State College Presbyterian Church.  It’s like the model UN, that is if there’s a model UN that requires you to be an evangelical Christian. There are white people, black people, brown people, folks with accents that you don’t know where they came from, handicapped people. There were even Amish people. Frankly, I was astonished.

Once you enter the theatre lobby you get to navigate through second horde, though this time there’s cloying smell of hot spiced nuts in the air. Except for the lack of animal smells, it smelled like the county fair. I’ve never been to a theater that smelled like this. Then again, I’ve never been to the theater at 11:00 am.

The lobby’s top photo op spot was under a large statue of Samson. He’s the coming attraction. Sorry Nebuchadnezzar, maybe next time!  As sculpture goes, I’m not sure that it rises to the level of “so bad it’s good” but it does look as if it’s a refugee from an animated Disney feature with a generous dash of The Flintstones thrown in for good measure.  The crowd loved it. I’m sure tickets to the show are going like hotcakes.

I halfway expected the lobby reminiscent of Lourdes, festooned with crutches left by patrons who had a miraculous cure after the show. I mean, if there were ever a candidate for the evangelical, non-papist, Pennsylvania Dutch Lourdes, the Sight and Sound Theatre would be it. Who needs Obamacare when you have a non-Equity Moses telling you to throw away your crutches and walk?

While we were waiting to go to our seats—we were there PLENTY early, we perused the gift shoppes—matching shoppes, one on each side of the cavernous lobby. Interestingly enough, the gift selections were nothing special. Sure there were hideous giant purses, refrigerator magnets, and DVDs of the show. But there were no Daniel action figures, no license plate holders that said “follow me to Sight and Sound Theatre” no generic Lancaster county crap.  They are missing a tremendous opportunity to move merch.

Finally we were allowed to go into the house to our seats. The house was enormous. Not only are there 2,069 seats, but there are 2,069 generously sized seats, in scale with the butts of people who have never met a pot pie noodle that wasn’t worth a second helping. If there was any aura of mystery in the theater it was caused by the fog machines that were going overtime.

While we waited for the curtain to rise, we were treated to advertisements for coming attractions. The show started 15 minutes late, practically an unpardonable sin in my book. It looked as if they were waiting for one last busload of pilgrims, and when that section of folks finally settled in, we were treated to the admonition about turning off cell phones, and not interfering with the actors and animals in the show. In other words, this was no Tom Jones concert, so there was to be no throwing panties or motel room keys at anyone or anything.

They also announced that parts of the show were MADE UP for dramatic purposes.

They felt the need to point this out?

Before I get into the actual meat of the production, please note that I didn’t get the theater gene.  I can talk a pretty good game when it comes to window treatments, dogs as children, or even collecting Fiestaware, but theatre is generally lost on me.

In other words, Terry Teachout and Frank Rich would hate the show even more than I did.

Amateur though I am, he’s my review:

Joseph, as in the title character, lives in the Biblical era. He is, as my father would have said, a little light for heavy work, and a little heavy for light work. This is much to the dismay of his 10 half-brothers named, as in the Dr. Seuss story Too Many Daves, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, Dave, and Dave. Joseph’s younger brother is named Oliver Boliver Butt.

Joseph in the costume shop.
In addition to having their cloaks in a wad about Daniel’s spotty work ethic, the Daves are also not too keen on Joseph’s rather fashion-forward brightly colored coat, from the Maude Findlay Collection at JC Penney. Joseph, of course, thinks he look fabulous. Like his brothers, Joseph has terrible hair. As in, it looks like hell. And his shoes, well, they’re also abysmal. Even so, by my way of thinking, Joseph is obviously gay.

The Daves go to their father and nark on Joseph for his lollygagging. The father, Jacob, lives in a tent that looks like it was designed for Diana Vreeland—think the Arabian Knights and then some, no, and then a lot. The brothers seem to think Biblical glamping is normal. Jacob isn’t very sympathetic to The Daves but still tells Joseph, the son he likes most, to keep the stories about his dreams on the down low.

The Joseph has another dream and tells everyone. The Daves, especially, are NOT HAPPY.  And I was not happy either, because, when Joseph says that he’s had a dream, I am on the edge of my seat waiting for him to belt out these familiar lyrics:

I had a dream, a dream about you, baby.
It's gonna come true, baby.

They think that we're through, but baby,
You'll be swell! 

You'll be great!
Gonna have the whole world on a plate!
Starting here, starting now,
honey, everything's coming up roses!

That’s right, the famous showstopper from Gypsy! 

If there is ever a moment that calls for the playwright and the actor to channel the old inner Ethel Merman, this was it.

But no.

Instead we’re treated to some insipid faux John Williams crap.

Pardon me while I digress from the story synopsis, but one of the worst things (and there are several) about the Sight and Sound Theater was the Sound. There are no show tunes, or even hummable gospel numbers, instead the actors sing/lip-synch to a fake symphonic crap. It takes some doing to ignore the wonderful traditions of gospel music, American musical theater, and even opera to produce a show with a grand total of zero tunes you could hum. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Not a one. If that weren’t enough, there are no live musicians so really, the show is a two and a half hour long karaoke session.

I’m not really sure how they could have made the music any worse had they tried.
So back to the story, The Daves, are not happy with their dreamy brother and climb a big hill of Styrofoam rocks and throw him into a pit. Conveniently enough, the pit has a glass wall, so it looks as if he’s in a giant Ant Farm.  At this point a caravan of traders comes by. They have two actual camels, one of which farts next to Bruce as it waits to go on stage. Yes, this actually happened. They should call it The Sight, Sound, and Smell Theatre.

The Daves decide to monetize Joseph by selling him into slavery. Had I been producing the show, I would have had Joseph time-and-genre-travel to Gone With the Wind. If Joseph had learned some “negro spirituals” from Mammy, Prissy, Big Sam, and all the field hands at Tara, the music would have been much better in the second act.

Instead the slave trader retails Joseph to a bald soldier in Egypt named Potiphar. Think Yul Brynner lite. This is the occasion for some Egyptian dance numbers which seem to have been choreographed by Steve Martin in his “King Tut” period. On a good day this part of the show would rise to the level of a middle school musical. Unfortunately we were there on a just so-so day.

At this point Joseph starts taking Adderall by the bucketful, since soon enough he’s redecorated the palace, developed a new breed of horses, and brought a reliable 4G cell network to Ancient Egypt thousands of years before he’s even eligible for an free upgrade from Verizon.

Brad Patton
Interestingly enough, when he’s in Egypt, he gets rid of the bad hair and goes with a hairstyle that makes him look like retired porn star Brad Patton. It’s unsaid, but it’s obvious that Joseph is mindful of the old chestnut that it’s easy to be out when you’re out of town.
Mrs. Potiphar apparently "has needs" and tries to seduce Joseph. Although there is nothing about it in the program, my guess is that Mrs. Potiphar won the Norma Desmond Award at the Dean Smith School of Acting, since she practically shouts, “I am big, it’s The Pyramids that got small” at Joseph. Her charms are totally lost on him.

She’s not his type, since she’s married to his boss, and if I had to guess based on what passed for acting, because she was technically well, a girl. Stung by rejection, she’s says he tried to have his way with her and he’s thrown into the klink.

Then comes the best part of the show: the fifteen minute intermission.

I got a cup of gas station quality coffee at the snack bar, sampled the sugared spiced almonds, and stepped outside to enjoy authentic Pennsylvania Dutch Country sunshine. 

At the beginning of the second act, Joseph is released from prison as an honors graduate of the license plate making course. He then has a bromance with the Pharaoh which is when Joseph grows as a person (and presumably in other places as well) though that was just hinted at.

Joseph, now called by his Egyptian drag name, Zaphnath-Paaneah, is skilled at interpreting dreams. He misses an opportunity to reprise Everything’s Coming Up Roses, but does a number on one of the Pharaoh’s dreams and lets him know that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven lean years.

Joseph (aka Zaphnath-Paaneah) and crew then store more grain during the seven years of plenty than you can shake a stick at. At this point, he’s apparently broken up with the Pharaoh or perhaps that's just on the back burner (so to speak) since he now has a wife named Asenath and two children, who, interestingly enough were played by children of different races. If we didn’t live in a colorblind society I would have told Joseph to answer the clue phone and wake up to the fact that Asenath not only has a checkered past, but apparently a checkered present as well.

During the seven years of lean, his brothers come to Egypt looking for food, and there’s lots of back and forth, including failed attempts at projecting actual emotions from the stage. Ultimately Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery and treats his brothers to a genuine Pennsylvania Dutch smorgasbord of seven sweets and seven sours.

At the end of the show, forgiveness rules the day, and Joseph flies off stage, more like a C-130 than Peter Pan, as I say, under my voice for once, WTF. There’s a short video of Jesus talking to us about forgiveness, and an announcer says that prayer partners will be around and about after the show. I demurred since the show was enough of a religious experience for one day.

So, as they do at the end of real theater reviews, some notes about the staging.

I already mentioned how horrible the music was, so I won’t kick the top off that old turd.

As for the costumes, well…did I mention that Joseph’s coat was from the Maude Findlay Collection at JC Penney? I thought so. Joseph is not the famous Las Vegas revue, Jubilee with its topless version of the story of Samson and Delilah. For the most part, people are covered head to toe, except for the Keen sandals all the actors (men and women) wear. Apparently they’re the Old Testament’s version of sensible shoes.

As for the wigs, think Jane Austen’s Regency England meets Medusa with a touch of Elsa Lanchester as Bride of Frankenstein thrown in for good measure. Trust me, even if all of Caitlyn Jenner’s hair fell out tomorrow, she wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those things.

There are lots of live animals in the show. A water buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, horses, a rat, a parrot, and perhaps even a llama. At least they didn’t sing and as far as I know, only one of the camels was dealing with flatulence.

The Egyptian sets, I have to admit were pretty amazing. They were a version of what Rameses II could have done had he the good sense to hire Cecil B. DeMille as his architect, landscape architect, and interior designer. They were gargantuan and stretched forever, from one wing of the stage to the other. Great stuff; the second best part of the show. They had a long way to go to beat the Intermission.

Interestingly enough, the program doesn’t list any credits. You have no idea who the actors are, who wrote the play, or the music, who designed the sets, did the choreography, the director, the costume designer and so on.

That was fine, I didn’t really want to know any of that.

However, I would have liked to know the name of the farting camel.

300 Hartman Bridge Rd
Strasburg, PA 17579
(800) 377-1277