From the writer of hit musicals Wicked and Godspell comes… a disappointment. Based on the 1998 Dreamworks film of the same name and telling the Biblical story of Moses, from his birth through to the parting of the Red Sea, The Prince of Egypt fails to live up to Stephen Schwartz’s previous work.
Sadly the show misses the mark across the board but most problematic is the writing itself. While there are a handful of good songs (‘For the Rest of My Life’, ‘Heartless’ and ‘When You Believe’), these songs are not given their moment so the audience doesn’t have time to take them in before the show moves onto the next song or dance routine. Most of the songs blur into one another and fail to convey the emotion that story is depicting. For a writer who has given us some iconic musical theatre songs such as ‘Defying Gravity’, ‘All For The Best’ and ‘Corner of The Sky’, it is disappointing that none of the songs in The Prince of Egypt feel stand-alone. However, despite this, the cast is comprised of very talented performers. Liam Tamne lends his smooth tenor voice to the role of Ramses alongside the capable, if a little overplayed, Luke Brady as Moses.
The three cast members who stand clear above the rest are Tanisha Springs, Alexia Khadime and Gary Wilmot. Khadime brings the emotional desperation of the Hebrews which the other actors don’t seem to have (seemingly a directorial decision rather than a case of poor acting). Her vocals outshone the rest of the cast in each of her numbers. Tanisha Springs, playing the small role of Nefertari managed to use her stage time to showcase both her acting and singing abilities. While her character is initially very unlikeable, she brings a dry humour that sits well with a British audience. In Act II, she sings by far the most memorable number of the night – ‘Heartless’ – a solo ballad about the death of her son. For the first time in the show, the music was doing what musicals should do – making the audience emote. However, because it came off the back of another big number and afterwards, the show launched straight into the next song, neither Springs’ vocals nor the emotion she conveyed was given the time to be properly taken in by the audience. Gary Wilmot brought a much needed energy to the show, leading the number ‘Through Heaven’s Eyes’ which also featured strong ensemble choreography. This number and indeed the whole scene finally brought a break from the boredom that preceded it. By the interval, I was hoping to see more of Wilmot’s energy and enthusiasm in the second half, but sadly my wish did not come true as he was not seen again until the Finale.
For a musical which is based on a children’s film, ultimately the show lacked a sense of fun. While there were laughs dotted through the piece, and one upbeat number, the show as a whole lacked energy.
The ensemble did the best job possible given the directorial choices. They were clearly a talented group for between rolling around the floor clumsily and the ‘heavy lifting’ acting as pyramid builders, they performed impressive and physically demanding choreography and acrobatics throughout. However they were very much over-used; there was rarely a scene where they weren’t onstage. Even if they weren’t being Egyptians, Hebrews or Midianites, they were brought on to roll across the floor as sand or water or stand motionless being statues or reeds. With them traipsing on and off stage every scene in a hoard, it felt like a school play in which the teacher wanted to satisfy all the parents by making sure their child had their stage-time, no matter how futile it was.
In a vast space such as the Dominion, the stage needs to be the focal point; a statement. However the set, designed by Kevin Depinet, comprised solely of a cut out shape of some parchment on the floor and one hanging from the ceiling which was used as a screen on which to project. This just made the space feel cavernous and empty. The use of video design, which was projected onto the back of the stage, the parchment set piece above the stage and onto hanging pieces of fabric in the auditorium, was distinctly underwhelming. While it may have saved on the budget, it felt lackluster, for example, while looking at the supposedly grand palace of the Pharaoh with all its luxury and grandeur, we were actually looking at a completely empty stage with a picture of an egyptian statue projected onto the back. While I am an avid fan of minimalist, stripped back set design, it simply did not work for this show especially given the design of the theatre itself. Paired with the set was the lighting design by Mike Billings which also left much to be desired. The lighting design was, simply put, basic. The abundance of spotlights and gobos (a filter put on a light to create a patterned silhouette) once again made it feel like a school production (or even a school disco).
While the writing is dubious throughout, the direction by Stephen Schwartz’s son Scott Schwartz makes even the potentially good moments, a struggle to watch. However the cast have clear talent in all aspects of performance, which is sadly put to waste in this piece.