Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Philip Lazebnik
Director: Scott Schwartz
The Old Testament always translates so well to stage and screen, something about the sweeping grandeur of the settings, the fire and brimstone melodrama and the vengeful God heaping ignominies on the undeserving. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat made such a successful return to the Palladium last summer while the image of Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments is burned into film history. The arrival of The Prince of Egypt at the Dominion Theatre marries the two with a revised version of the Dreamworks film telling the story of Moses and his brother.
Found among the bulrushes as a baby, Moses is adopted by the Queen of Egypt and raised alongside her natural born son Ramses who is destined to be Pharaoh. Best friends and brothers, their lives take very different paths when as an adult Moses discovers his true parentage and hears the prophecy of his enslaved sister Miriam, insisting his destiny is to lead the Hebrew slaves out of captivity. Rediscovering his heritage places the brothers at odds as the new ruler refuses his sibling’s entreaties.
The Prince of Egypt announced an extension of several weeks before a single review was filed. It’s light, entertaining, uses plenty of great visual effects, a story that skips happily from scene to scene, a cheesy romance and has plenty of defiant American spirit that ensures most songs end on a rousing note. If you loved the film, then there is probably little anyone can say to stop you going along and having a great time. This is a show that is almost certainly critic proof and it needs to be!
Because it’s hard to describe exactly what Stephen Schwartz and Philip Lazebnik who wrote the music, lyrics and book thought they were doing when they inflated the 100-minute animated movie into a 2 hour and 45-minute experience. And experience is the word, much of the time you’ll either be watching with mouth agape at the bizarre audacity of it all, dissolving into fits of giggles at the faux earnestness of every single moment or puzzling at the meandering plot that spends so long focusing on Moses naming sheep that it is forced to cram all the interesting plague and destruction business into a second half montage.
At almost every opportunity it turns away from the complicated or controversial, God is barely mentioned despite being fairly central to the plot, nor do the differences between the religious and cultural backgrounds of the Hebrew and Egyptian communities undergo much examination, nor less Moses’ conversion. Characterisation is ludicrously flimsy, reducing Moses’ journey to a troubled bromance with sappy love interest. What with being one of the most important Christian Prophets, encountering a burning bush, summoning plagues, parting a giant waterway and lugging the Ten Commandments down the mountain, the least interesting thing about him was that he had a wife – but not for The Prince of Egypt.
Everything is turned up to 11 here, it’s always just a bit too much. Sean Cheesman’s choreography is energetically performed by the Ensemble but it is so full of twists, tumbles and people rolling down the stage that it all merges into a frenetic mass of movements. Dancers dressed as water tossing a surely seasick baby Moses up and down, or writhing across Pharaoh’s barge as blood cells turning the River Nile red will be hard to forget, as will the fringe laden pair winched into the air as the Red Sea, like backing dancers on a Britney Spears showgirls tour. It is an imaginatively ludicrous experience, one that on some level you can’t help admiring for its gumption and if it ended with a Hollyoaks Later character waking up from a dream then you wouldn’t be in the least surprised.
Luke Brady gives it a go as Moses but there’s relatively little for him to do except look perturbed and worry if he’s actually the bad guy. Liam Tamne probably has the best of it as Ramses who is confined by his own kingly destiny and has the only truly emotional moment of the show with Tanisha Spring playing his wife Nefertari as they weep over their lost son. Christine Allado’s Tzipporah (Moses’ wife) is musically at odds with everyone else with a modern pop voice that can sound a little forced, and Gary Wilmot pops in as her father which is nice, but the sequence is entirely irrelevant.
It is the set design by Kevin Depinet that you will remember, ingeniously moving between the short movie-like scenes using Jon Driscoll’s projections to fill the stage with new locations, while the use of fringe curtains draws the stage out into the audience, it is a technical masterpiece. The Prince of Egypt manages to be lightweight and over earnest, entirely bonkers and bizarre, not that it really matters because audience will still love the more is more mantra for however long it runs.
Runs until 31 October 2020