Review: 'Prince of Egypt' musical gets world premiere in Silicon Valley
In the beginning, there was the DreamWorks animated movie "The Prince of Egypt" in 1998. Now almost 20 years later, TheatreWorks is presenting the dynamic world premiere of a live stage musical version of the fable, with a score by Stephen Schwartz, whose hallowed musical canon includes "Wicked," "Pippin" and "Godspell."
The Book of Exodus may not be the greatest story over told but it's certainly epic in scope. And lo, we meet Moses, living the high life as an Egyptian prince, running chariot races and planning memorial obelisks to the pharoahs. The twist here is that Moses and his brother Ramses are very close, with shades of the unshakable bond in "Wicked." The boys run off and confide in each other whenever life feels too confusing, until destiny finally tears them apart.
The decision to humanize these mythical figures gives the story surprising nuance. Philip LaZebnik's book gives each of the brothers their own authentic voice but keeps them rooted in the ancient legend. Schwartz's score brims with soaring ballads and pounding rhythms that aren't terribly distinct, but they do convey the drama and pageantry of the events retold. There's a majesty to the 28-member-cast production directed by Scott Schwartz in its world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in collaboration with Denmark's Fredericia Teater, that's undeniable.
Jason Gotay paints Ramses in vivid shades of doubt and uncertainty that are unexpected. Diluckshan Jeyaratnam doesn't fare as well fleshing out Moses's motivations. He has a believably vulnerable quality but he lacks the forcefulness and authority a role like Moses demands.
As soon as Moses uncovers his roots as a lowly Jewish slave, he must turn his back on royalty and set his people free from their shackles. Ramses isn't the only one with blood on his hands here. When Ramses refuses Moses' pleas for freedom, a plague is unleashed upon the land. Only the Hebrews are spared from the carnage.
The most miraculous part of the staging is Sean Cheesman's sculptural choreography, the way the bodies of the dancers writhe and undulate to form the burning bush, a chariot led by stallions and the parting of the waters. The use of dance as a way to move the story forward and eliminate the need for elaborate sets and special effects has its own poetry.
Indeed the understated complexity of the choreography turns out to be a bit of a curse, because it's hard not to hold other aspects of the production to that standard. In the choreography, it feels as if no movement is wasted but there are quite a few songs, such as "One of Us," where the wit falls flat. Soaring ballads such as the Oscar winner "When You Believe" are intensely sentimental but also stirring.
LaZebnik's book deepens certain aspects of the story, particularly the endurance of the brotherly bond, but it also races through significant moments, such as Ramses' decision to betray Moses.
Occasionally the score and the movement mesh, such as in the memorable number by the slave girl Tzipporah (a formidable Brennyn Lark) who sings a '"Dance to the Day" that she will be free, performed while she's chained at the feet of the Pharoah. Christina Sajous also brings real gravitas to Queen Tuya.
The embrace of the darkness and ambiguity of the Bible story is one of the show's strengths, just as the moments of Hallmark-style reconciliation are its weakness. Act 2 tips toward the sugary as it builds towards the massive parting of the sea. "Prince of Egypt" is at its mightiest when it stays true to the tragic weight of this tale of gods and prophets.
'THE PRINCE OF EGYPT'
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Philip LaZebnik, based on the DreamWorks Animation film, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Through: Nov. 5
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $40-$100; 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org
-- Sent from my Linux system.