Dominion Theatre, London – until 31 October 2020
Way way back, many centuries ago, but a little bit more after the Bible began, someone decided that Old Testament justice really was the way forward for musical theatre. And so here we have a musical that features two ethnic massacres of children but it’s all OK if you sing a ballad afterwards to atone (even if you’ve sanctioned the murder of your de facto nephew) and others will then tell you it’s ok “when you believe”.
The Prince of Egypt picks up a few generations after Joseph and co set up shop in the land of the Nile, where the Hebrew population is now spiralling out of control for the Egyptian authorities. Enlightened thinking about immigrants hasn’t quite reached these shores, so the Hebrews find themselves enslaved and upon the order of the slaughter of all their newborn boys by a grumpy Pharoah Seti, an intrepid Yocheved pops her baby into a basket and hopes that he’ll get picked up by a queen rather than a crocodile.
Conveniently, it is Tuya, the Queen of Egypt who finds him and adopts him and thus Moses becomes the adoptive brother of Ramses and life is great for the two princes in their nifty outfits (I swear the fashion inspiration for their first look is the ‘I Know Him So Well’ video) until Moses discovers the truth about his heritage, killing a man along the way (it’s OK because he’s a mean guard) and decides that he needs to follow his destiny to liberate his people, no matter what, no matter how many children get killed along the way.
Taking the Bible literally is often dicey ground (shellfish, polyester, your wife defending your life in a fight by grabbing your attacker’s genitals…), and Philip LaZebnik’s book exacerbates this by pairing this narrative with some painfully earnest dialogue that does little to evoke any of the inspirational lessons that so many take from the Scripture. So too does Stephen Schwartz’s score rely too much on the empty bombast of pop rather than alchemising with the narrative to create memorable musical theatre.
Matters aren’t helped by an inconsistent production from director Scott Schwartz (son of…) that always prioritises scale over subtlety, apart from one moment of true grace in the loss of those firstborns. Kevin Depinet’s set design relies heavily Jon Driscoll’s projections which are far more effective in their abstract imagery than when they go for realism. And much use is made of Sean Cheeseman’s highly kinetic choreography is which ultimately feels very hit and miss. The embodiment of the burning bush is effectively done (as are the temple walls) but when the company are rolling on the floor as wafting bulrushes or pesky sand devils, it is highly distracting.
But despite all this, a highly committed cast do their best to ride out these production choices to deliver work that fills the Dominion well. Luke Brady and Liam Tamne are both highly appealing as the brothers whose emotional connection isn’t ever quite sundered by diverging destinies, and Christine Allado finds more depth than you might initially expect for Tzipporah, Moses’ eventual wife. The production can also rely on some big names in small parts – Gary Wilmot has literally one song as Jethro, Alexia Khadime’s Miriam is sorely underused, actual queen Debbie Kurup as Queen Tuya.
The performance level almost wins you over. But too often the production drops another clanger to make you think WWJD. Why does Moses only care about the welfare of slaves once he realises he is a Hebrew? Is that really just a curtain for the Red Sea? After battling against his imperial tendencies, how can Moses tell Ramses to go forth and continue building an empire? Why is Tanisha Spring’s Nefertari only allowed not to be a bitch once she’s lost a child? Why does the High Priest think he is the Great Soprendo? For us to really believe, The Prince of Egypt might be in need of a miracle.