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VocalEye Describes Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Kristy and Shawn against a blue background with a picture of Joseph in his colourful coat

It was December 27, 2019 and my boyfriend, Shawn, and I took our seats in the front row of the Gateway Theatre in Richmond in anticipation of our twelfth VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society's described performance of the year. I'd been counting down to this one for months and knew it would be the perfect high note on which to cap off our performing arts calendar.

Shawn had a surprise coming, I chuckled to myself.

I have the Broadway soundtracks to Wicked and The Lion King at home and, every time Shawn and I listened to them, I would ask him how he'd feel about attending a musical where, well, the dialogue was in the music.

"That can't be," he'd scoff. "There has to be some actual dialogue. You know, like in Beauty and the Beast where people talk in between bursting into song."

"Nope," I'd say. "You've got to really listen to the song lyrics."

Even as I'd speak the words, I'd be wondering how such productions could be made accessible to people with vision loss. Shawn and I have been to dozens of described performances where describers use pre-show notes and breaks in dialogue to tell us about sets and costumes and physical characteristics.

But how would a describer find spaces to interject when the songs were the dialogue?

I'd seen Broadway productions of Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Wicked and Mama Mia. I have enough usable vision to know that each song in a musical is accompanied by elaborate choreography and antics which, combined with lyrics, bring stories to life.

In a musical, in my opinion anyway, the choreography is the magic ingredient.

How much is lost when a person, like Shawn who has only light perception, can't see the dancing and gestures? Could live description possibly compensate?

We were about to find out.

Here we were, about to experience Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Our describer, Annika, set the scene by describing the stage, with the orchestra pit to the left and a twenty-foot pink star at centre stage.

"The star is directly in front of us," I told Shawn.

Annika went on to describe the characters – Jacob and his twelve sons, a little boy and his mother who would be referred to as 'the woman' even though she was the story's narrator, slave traders dressed in leather chaps and cowboy gear. I particularly enjoyed her description of the Pharaoh in Act Two, with her gold platform shoes and cobra headdress.

It didn't take Shawn long once the singing began to realize that actively listening to the lyrics was key to following the story.

"Sure glad we read that Wikipedia summary," he whispered to me.

I nodded, too impressed with Annika's lightning-rod descriptions of the flag-waving, gyrating, shoulder-slapping characters on stage to reply.

Truth be told, without Annika's well-timed commentary during the scenes and her detailed verbal portrait of the Pharoh's court at intermission, a good deal of the over-the-top extravagance and the diversity of the cast would have escaped me.

I came home and looked up the musical on Youtube so that I could pause the video and take in any details I may have missed. What I discovered was that, while pausing the video allowed me to focus more clearly on things at my own pace, I hadn't missed anything at all. With the lyrics telling me the story and Annika filling me in on Joseph languishing in his cell, the courtiers swirling their feathered standards, the eleven brothers falling one by one to their knees before their sibling-turned-benefactor and, of course, the Elvis-Pharaoh recounting his befuddled dreams,,, I'd morphed from person with vision loss to enthralled audience member.

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