BWW Review: THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, Dominion Theatre
Writer of songs such as "Defying Gravity" and "Popular", Stephen Schwartz is for many the epitome of musical theatre. But cast your mind back to before Wicked and remember The Prince of Egypt, a 1998 DreamWorks animated film for which Schwartz penned "When You Believe". Now at the Dominion Theatre and bolstered with 10 songs penned by Schwartz, this new stage adaptation unfortunately defies little other than the audience's patience.
For the uninitiated, The Prince of Egypt tells the tale of how Moses, found in a reed basket on the shores of the Nile, is adopted by the Pharaoh Seti and his wife, Tuya. Moses grows up with his 'brother' Ramses until a vision from God tells him to free the enslaved Hebrews. A plague or two later, Moses returns to his former home and follows this command(ment) with a parting shot that leaves all who see it astounded.
Firstly, the ensemble cast of this show must be praised. One minute they form a temple, the next the River Nile running red with blood, and in between they are the Burning Bush. Sparsely dressed in Ann Hould-Ward's lacklustre costumes, the intense, physical energy this company brings is impressive.
They're flung together by Sean Cheesman's choreography, but less would have been welcome. They proclaim "Deliver Us", an anthem of hope crushed by slavery, but little can save them from the oppression of Philip LaZebnik's meandering, inconsequential book.
Regrettably, The Prince of Egypt feels more like a pantomime than a Biblical epic. Luke Brady and Liam Tamne are charming as Moses and Ramses respectively, but their affable, brotherly relationship leads to jocular scenes that are at odds with the themes of slave labour and religious persecution that occupy the show's background.
Christine Allado's Tzipporah, a dancing girl captured by the Egyptian character, feels unusually like Esmerelda, a character from another Schwartz musical. Tanisha Spring as Nefertari, Rameses' wife, does well with the little material she has. Debbie Kurup is a regal Queen Tuya and Alexia Khadime as Miriam provides a much-needed moral tone to the piece.
It is not the cast's fault that this is a disappointing night out. Under Scott Schwartz's direction, the pacing suffers, and the potential to recover from a torrid first act is quickly dashed in the second when, after 20 minutes, the show lapses into its obsession with power ballads.
Here is the real problem with The Prince of Egypt: somehow, Stephen Schwartz's songs just do not pull their weight. It takes many people to build a musical (and, as it happens, a pyramid), and the strong foundations must be the music and lyrics. Yet here Schwartz's songs are uninspired and repetitive, often relying on belting and choral power; a loud song follows another as the show traipses through its excessive run time.
Only after 70 minutes did a song that propels the narrative forward with style come forward: "Through Heaven's Eyes" is led by a warm Gary Wilmot and supported by spectacular dancing.
Plastered on the promotion for The Prince of Egypt is its inclusion of the song "When You Believe", which won the Academy Award in 1999 for best song. After a faint mention of the song's lyrics in the first act, the song itself appears in various guises three times during the second act. It's a powerful song for sure, but plaguing tired audiences with so many reprises is too much.
So much has gone into making The Prince of Egypt a crowd-pleaser, yet it often fails because these qualities all impact the show's pacing, thus further highlighting the issues with the narrative. Against Kevin Depinet's plain set Jon Driscoll sends up scenic projection after projection, which eventually lose their impact, and Chris Fisher's illusions are neat but draw too much attention to themselves. The parting of the Red Sea is, regrettably, also a washout.
Tragically, the only achievement of The Prince of Egypt is that it feels both hollow and bloated at the same time. It's a shame to watch so many fine performers not put to effective use. Stephen Schwartz is no stranger to theatrical miracles, but it's going to take more than that here to create a hit.
Photograph credit: Tristram Kenton.