THE latest film to receive the screen-to-stage treatment is The Prince of Egypt. It was originally a Spielberg-DreamWorks production in 1998, and the screen is never far behind — quite literally, in fact: the blank backdrop bears a constant series of projected images and animations (fittingly, given that the Dominion Theatre was originally a cinema).
The piece itself takes its cue from the Book of Exodus to tell the story of Moses and his relationship with Prince (then Pharaoh) Ramses. The stage version features several new songs, as the composer, Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked), and the writer, Philip LaZebnik, give it all a reboot. Refashioning it as musical theatre, the producers have thrown the chequebook at it.
matt crockett © DWA LLCLuke Brady as Moses in The Prince of Egypt
So much of it is hokum and whimsy, and yet always done with imagination and a straight face. At the outset, we are right into the Israelites in bondage, the plucking of baby Moses from his basket by Queen Tuya, then the Egyptian court and its atmosphere — and all within a few minutes.
Luke Brady makes for an ardent, puppy-eyed Moses to the muscular prince of Liam Tamne’s Ramses. They are more bromance than brothers, which plays out painfully when Ramses lets Moses go from the court later over a building accident. This isn’t the only departure from Exodus 1-14, but it sets everything up nicely as a biblical soap opera. The sojourn of Moses in Midian, where he meets and marries Tzipporah (the ravishing Christine Allado, last seen in Hamilton), and a star turn from the veteran Gary Wilmot as her father, Jethro, gives respite before he must go back and face his destiny as the great liberator.
Staging an epic is not easy, but Scott Schwartz as director, with Kevin Depinet’s set design, absolutely pulls it off. In addition to the animated back screen, string curtains extend into the vast auditorium to hold further projections — sphinxes and pharaohs, hieroglyphs, stars, and skies. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes don’t hold back: it’s swords-and-sandals by way of Ruritania, particularly in the cartoonish white uniforms of the Egyptians and the hippyish Midians.
The real standout is Sean Cheesman’s choreography. When the ensemble aren’t lumping around classroom drama blocks (now a throne, a quay, the temple, a wall), they writhe and wriggle into various shapes, gliding and contorting as the Nile, the Burning Bush, a sandstorm. The Plagues as a scene is brilliantly done and enough alone to justify a Sunday-school outing. The portrayal of the death of the firstborn was a moving moment of deep stillness; there were tears in the stalls.
tristram kenton © DWA LLCLuke Brady as Moses in The Prince of Egypt
Strong casting shines out. Brady and Tamne bring energetic brio to everything; their duet on “Make it right” acts as a keystone to the whole narrative. Debbie Kurup’s Tuya and Joe Dixon’s Pharaoh Seti give big performances as the royal parents. Mercedesz Csampai (Yocheved) and Alexia Khadime (Miriam) lend their gorgeous voices to the melodies. Adam Pearce as the unbending arch-villain, the high priest Hoteb, is a tour de force and neatly drowned in the Red Sea at the end, a further celebration as the Hebrews get on their way. These are not the downtrodden refugees of a Verdian mob: they’re all so buff and glimmering that they seem not so much seeking salvation as a local gym to put in their daily routine.
The score has everything you want in a West End musical. Strings swoop and soar, voices take off in counterpoint, there are choruses and key-changes aplenty. Less pleasing is how only a few numbers actually get into full flight as a song. The ear-teasing is thankfully suspended for “Deliver Us”, the Israelite plea for salvation, “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, the Midianite appeal to faith, and “Never in a Million Years”, the lush Moses-Tzipporah love duet.
Taken as a whole, it works. There are many Jewish colours that recall Yentl or Fiddler on the Roof, and the Midianites get full-on Turkish-restaurant-muzak treatment. By the time we hit the 11-o’clock number, Moses steps forward to give his mission voice in “For the Rest of my Life”.
A brief skip, and then the biggie that we’ve all been waiting for: “When You Believe”. Previously recorded by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey (Best Song Grammy, 2000), it veers close to an anthem of self-belief and personal achievement, but the eruption of a joyful Hebrew chorus within and the obvious journey that they now begin from slavery to the Promised Land gives it a stirring, psalmic quality.
The Ladybird Book of Moses, Prince and Shepherd is perhaps more faithful, but that’s not the point. The audience were on their feet at the end, clearly loving it. Hillsong have their worship events on a Sunday at the Dominion, too. What a place of witness it has become, seven days a week!
At the Dominion Theatre, 268-269 Tottenham Court Road,
London W1. Box office: phone 0344 847 2311. theprinceofegyptmusical.com