In “The Prince of Egypt,” a swords-and-sandals epic minus the swords, no one speaks, they declaim; no one questions, they implore to the heavens. In a musical re-telling of the Exodus story that is bigger on plagues than on developed characterization, subtlety was always going to be in short supply. But did everything have to be so strenuous? When, late in the first act, a genial, blessedly relaxed Gary Wilmot appears as Jethro to lead the company in song welcoming Moses back among his people, you suddenly realize what’s been missing: engaging warmth.
In the hit 1998 Dreamworks Animation movie (with music by “Wicked” composer Stephen Schwartz), the portentous dialogue beloved of every biblical epic — including “The Ten Commandments,” which shares much of the same story — was more than counterbalanced by the sweep and swirl of fast-paced visuals. In animation where anything is possible and everything can change in an instant, that’s relatively easily achieved. But even on one of London’s widest stages, it’s a much tougher assignment to whip up instantly changing locations — everything from Egyptian palaces to pyramid building sites to the parting of the Red Sea.
In this busy, bold production — the undisclosed budget runs to a cast of 31 plus children, a band of 15 and a vast crew, all helmed by director Scott Schwartz (also the composer’s son) — the attempt to solve the staging problems begins with the well-meshed design team’s work.
Set designer Kevin Depinet hangs huge, dangling curtains stretching out from across the stage to beyond the proscenium arch, wrapping the sides of the cavernous auditorium. They operate as screens for Jon Driscoll’s ceaseless projection images, most of them literal, and as a device to give the audience in the cavernous auditorium a stronger sense of being closer to the action.
There’s also a screen above the stage upon which images of rolling clouds and super-saturated sunsets are projected, and the tonal palate makes “Gone With The Wind” seem the model of restraint. And speaking of slave dramas, Schwartz has come up with the fittest group of slaves you can imagine. `
That’s probably a good thing given how much work choreographer Sean Cheesman gives them to do. He puts his energetic, well-drilled dancers not just in the ensemble numbers you’d expect — songs of group terror or rejoicing — but as storytelling devices.
Want to show baby Moses in his basket floating down the Nile? Dress eight dancers in skimpy blue and lilac and have them waft then lie down in rows to roll the basket to shore. Need chariots for the breakneck race between adolescent chums Moses and Rameses? Have two teams of six leap into position in human pyramids, with another behind to billow out costume designer Ann Hould-Ward’s capes.
But outside of those specific groupings, the most noticeable thing about the choreography, beyond quite how much of it there is, is how perilously little of it expresses anything except the dancers’ work. And having already seen them writhing in clusters, when they gather again to play God in the burning bush, the device feels secondhand. In the desert they at last have authentic-seeming “folksy” moves, but they are preceded by balletic poses with impressive leg extensions for no discernible reason.
That number gives composer Stephen Schwartz his best opportunity to show off his skill writing a Jewish-toned folk song of celebration. Elsewhere, with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack gone from the proceedings, he fills gaps with fresh songs to complement the movie hits.
Alongside the roar of lushly harmonized choral numbers, routinely reprised, there are the expected anthemic power ballads, replete with mostly anodyne lyrics strongly orchestrated by August Eriksmoen. And having clocked the fact that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were on the original soundtrack, none of the uniformly strong-voiced leads holds back on the melismas, least of all Christine Allado’s initially enraged slave then enraptured wife Tzipporah, who is given the opportunity to let rip. That’s symptomatic of the entire bombastic production. Constantly going from zero to emotional overload, it’s so effortful it’s enervating.
Luke Brady does what he can in the role of Moses, laying on the gravitas half way through after being busily boisterous with youthful dialogue via Philip Lazebnik’s clunky book, which sees fit to have Rameses’s grateful, “You’re always at my back” followed by Moses’s “I certainly don’t want to see your front.”
It’s typical of the production that, not content with the strength of Brady’s voice, Scott Schwarz places him three-quarters of the way downstage for his yearning solo “For the Rest Of My Life” and then, just before the finish, has him walk forward four paces so that he can be hit with criss-crossing lightbeams for no reason other than to put a button on the number.
There’s sincere weight to the sensitive scene following the smiting of the first-born and, as expected, projections go into overdrive for the parting of the sea. But even here, the sequence suffers because the hydraulics that lift the stage to kill the Egyptians have already been used too similarly elsewhere in the show, thus robbing the stagecraft of dramatic surprise.
This musical may well play to the movie’s fans. Like Disney’s “The Lion King,” the biggest animation-to-stage-tuner hit (22 years and counting), the opening sequence of “The Prince of Egypt” features a rising sun. But the similarities, in terms of mega-hits, may end there.