Dominion Theatre, London
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by Philip LaZebnik
Directed by Scott Schwartz
The Bible has not always had an easy relationship with musical theatre. Two notable exceptions being Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar and that perennial favourite Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Each of these casts a contemporary take on the scripture and features a through-sung score. A modern oratorio. At about the same time US composer Stephen Schwartz gave us Godspell, a whimsical take on the Gospels that proved just as successful and gave us memorable hits such as God Save The People and Day By Day. What Godspell lacked was staying power and major revivals have been few and far between. His musical Children Of Eden, also based on episodes from the Bible, failed to take off in 1991, despite development from the RSC.
A few years later, Schwartz scored a hit with an animated version of the story of Moses from DreamWorks Animation, The Prince Of Egypt. It’s probably nowhere near the classic movie that the publicity would have you think, despite the noble line-up of actors providing the voices. However Schwartz hit pay-dirt with the Academy-award winning anthem When You Believe, recorded for popular release by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
Move forward another 20 years and Schwartz has shifted the story to the stage, adding further musical numbers to the score and a book by the author of the original screenplay Philip Lazebnik. All the familiar key points are in place. There are bulrushes, a baby in the basket and a burning bush. Lazebnik’s storytelling technique manages to cram many plot points into a relatively short running time. Yet for all this speed it still manages to drag, only ever really springing to life in the musical numbers. And boy, do we pray for some of the whimsy that made Godspell so appealing in its day. Instead we get a story that’s both too leaden for family audiences and too simplistic for adults.
Kevin Depinet’s set design works on certain levels, with the projections and variegated screens capturing the burning desert or the majestic temples of the Nile with some sense of scale. However bearing in mind that this is a story steeped in mysticism and miracles, there’s very little magic on show. Sean Cheesman’s relentless choreography offers us the Twelve Plagues of Egypt via interpretative dance, which would be fine if this was Sadler's Wells or the Union Theatre. I personally want a little spectacle from a West End production, especially as the hand of God was supposed to be behind it. Instead we get polystyrene building blocks and a couple of magic tricks that wouldn’t impress a ten-year old, let alone a Pharaoh. To add to the disconcerting simplicity of the special effects and set, Ann Hould-Ward's costumes managed to look both cheap and unsettlingly anachronistic.
Schwartz has padded out the original with ten additional numbers, none of which really have the impact of When You Believe. The song Dance To The Day is given to Christine Allado's Tzipporah the captured Midian to establish her pride and independence. This turns out to be one of the best numbers in the show, proving a highlight for Allado and a shoo-in for this year’s Eurovision entry. Thankfully a woefully underused Alexia Khadime as Miriam and Allado do justice to When You Believe but it’s a long wait for this edifying anthem.
It’s good to see Gary Wilmot back in the West End in trousers, rather than his regular star turn as Dame at the Palladium panto. Wilmot has a natural warmth on stage and his musical number as Jethro, offers a little light relief from the rather worthy, soul-searching anthems that populate the score. The focus of Lazebnik’s story is, understandably, Moses played by Luke Brady and more pointedly his relationship with Rameses, the boy who would be Pharaoh, played by Liam Tamne. There’s oddly little chemistry between the two, although this may be down to Lazebnik’s script, which struggles to fashion a credible tone and ends up as conflicted bromance. Brady and Tamne each get to strut their stuff vocally, both proving they have quality singing voices but there’s little here to help establish them as West End leading men.
Schwartz appears to have added to his collection of problematic Bible-based musicals with The Prince Of Egypt, but director Scott Schwartz’s cheap and often confused looking production doesn’t actually help matters. It cuts too many corners, dumbs down Moses’ relationship with God and beefs up the one with Rameses. Who knows, in years to come a fringe theatre may manage to hit the right tone. In the meantime, this production could do with a little more creative flair and re-write.
Booking until 31st October
Reviewed by Paul Vale
Photo credit: Matt Crockett