'The Prince of Egypt': Theater Review

Courtesy of Matt Crockett ┬ęDWA LLC
Foreground, from left: Silas Wyatt-Burke, Alexia Khadime, Luke Kirby and Christine Allado in 'The Prince of Egypt'
Moses supposes this is okay if you like your musicals super-bombastic.
10/31/2020

The story of Exodus, as told in the 1998 DreamWorks animated feature, is translated into a theatrical experience on the London stage with songs by 'Wicked' composer Stephen Schwartz.

Clearly inspired less by the Book of Exodus than the Playbook of Disney, DreamWorks' screen-to-stage adaptation of the 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt is a frenetic, spectacle-driven show, massive in scale but lacking in charm. Some might swoon for its seemingly unintended kitsch, however, with an aesthetic about as close to its ancient Egypt and biblical referents as a Las Vegas casino, and as such perhaps well designed to draw in those who like their religious storytelling zhuzhed up with a bit of mammon, plus lashings of sequins, magic tricks and cheerleader-style gymnastics. No commandments are technically broken here, although there may be some bending of the first, the one about having no other gods, and possibly the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, what with matinees and all.

The Exodus-by-way-of-Cecil-B.-DeMille book (credited to Philip LaZebnik, who also contributed to scripts for Disney’s Pocahontas, the original Mulan and several DreamWorks movies) comes constructed around a spine of tunes written for the film by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked). But the show is so padded out by extra songs, it's practically an opera.

Directed by the composer's son, Scott Schwartz, with the bombast dial turned to 11, this production pushes beyond the stage at the cavernous Dominion Theatre (home of Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You for donkey's years) in London's West End after runs at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and in Denmark. The London engagement has been extended through October, with New York producers attached, so no one would be surprised if it transfers to the U.S. soon. But in all seriousness, Vegas would probably be a better fit than Broadway.

Instead of flies and props, the quick-changing scenery is mostly a creation marrying projections and cast, with the kneepad-equipped ensemble dressed to represent everything from slaves to shifting sand dunes to rising walls of Red Sea water at the climax, thanks to some strategically placed blue fringe and harnessing. More fringing is draped around the stage and out beyond the proscenium arch, with clever lighting suggesting all manner of backdrops (and foredrops?), shifting planes that swoosh pleasingly as they’re hauled to and fro across the stage. Most of the action seems to happen on an irregularly shaped hydraulic platform over the orchestra that canters up and down at various angles, creating different landscapes as needed.

In design terms, those are the best bits because, quite frankly, the costumes are terrifyingly ugly for the most part, or at best just plain weird. Although there are a few fully exposed, totally cut chests on display for the men and sheetrock abs for the women, the wardrobe is considerably more modest than what viewers of the cartoon, or indeed The Ten Commandments films and, er, all Egyptian iconography might expect. Instead of the loincloths, and King Tut head dressing, uniforms for the Egyptian male elite like Pharaoh Seti (Joe Dixon) and his sons Ramses (Liam Tamne) and Moses (Luke Brady) evoke luxe pajamas, which seem to have mated with 18th-century military jackets with fringed epaulets.

Instead of the draped columnar silhouettes you see in tomb paintings on the ladies, Queen Tuya (Debbie Kurup) and Ramses' regal wife Nefertari (Tanisha Spring) sport fitted evening gowns variously encrusted with rhinestones, mostly in whites and golds, like cocktail lounge chanteuses but with comfy flat-footed sandals. The tribe of Midianites Moses meets in the desert are a riot of warm and earth colors by contrast, as if someone bloodlessly blew up a Delhi fabric store and then stitched together the fragments. Poor Christine Allado (from the original London cast of Hamilton) as Moses' Midianite wife Tzipporah gets kitted out in a particularly vile combination of shocking pink and orange harem pants and crop top for the second half, which is really unfair because her lusty singing and spirited performance is one of the show's stronger features.

If this review seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time on clothes and sets, that's because it's with dread we come to the music. Aside from the Oscar-winning anthem "When You Believe," which became a hit single as a dueling melisma contest for Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, the songwriting really is quite forgettable and dull, despite solid, even impressive, singing from the cast throughout.

Brady's Moses in particular displays a strong range and varied emotional palette, from braggadocio in uptempo numbers like "Faster," when he races Ramses in chariots made entirely of ensemble members, to tragic, in the sorrowful and at last affecting "For the Rest of My Life," his lament after the slaughter of the first born. As an actor, he's fine, although no one here is allowed to project much in the way of subtlety or nuance. It's all declamatory, all the time, and only a few lines (mostly from the original film) slip in any humor or wit.

It probably didn't help the cast on opening night that sound problems delayed the show's start for 40 minutes, which meant that while all the marks were hit, there was a notable timidity about the performances until the ensemble found their footing. But probably even on a flawless night there would be no hiding the fact that this is a ponderous, excessively self-serious work, arguably crowd-pleasing but only for a certain sort of crowd.

Venue: Dominion Theatre, London
Cast: Luke Brady, Liam Tamne, Christine Allado, Alexia Khadime, Joe Dixon, Debbie Kurup, Gary Wilmot, Mercedesz Csampai, Adam Pearce, Tanisha Spring, Silas Wyatt-Burke, Simbi Akande
Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Philip LaZebnik, based on the DreamWorks Animation film
Director: Scott Schwartz
Choreographer: Sean Cheesman
Set designer: Kevin Depinet
Costume designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting designer: Mike Billings
Sound designer: Gareth Owen
Projection designer: Jon Driscoll
Illusions: Chris Fisher
Music supervision and arrangements: Dominick Amendum
Presented by DreamWorks Theatricals, Michael McCabe, Neil Laidlaw, John Gore, Tom Smedes and Peter Stern, Ramin Sabi, The Araca Group, James L. Nederlander, Michael Park