Holy Moses

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday October 25, 2017
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One Sunday, in a decade far, far away, our Sunday school class trooped down to a second-run theater to see Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments." The special effects were the niftiest part, but even a third-grader could catch the story's drift: bad Egyptians, suffering Israelites, magisterial Charlton Heston, a chatty burning bush, and the parting of the Red Sea. To revisit the story with suggestions of humanizing nuance can be a slippery slope when it undoes moral unambiguity but only gives lip service to the conundrums it unleashes.

That's the case in a stage musical that has been crafted from "The Prince of Egypt," a 1998 animated feature from DreamWorks with librettist Philip LaZebnik expanding on his screenplay. Moses feels bad about all the dead Egyptian babies he hath wrought, but as he tells anyone who's listening, he was just following orders - albeit God's orders. It's all in the cause of freeing the Hebrews from slavery, but Moses didn't much mind these forced laborers when he was living in the royal household unaware of his own roots. And you get the impression that he wouldn't care too much who the Pharaoh enslaved as long as they weren't his own kith and kin.

Perhaps these ethical questions wouldn't have arisen if the new musical had sufficient distractions, but in its world premiere at TheatreWorks, the script, songs, and many of the performances are lukewarm, and the production design surrounding the material is surprisingly subpar. The cast is forever rearranging a collection of lightweight building blocks - supposedly the stones used to construct the pyramids - and that is pretty much the extent of the set. And the costumes by Tony Award-winner Ann Hould-Ward seem to be based on cutoff sweatpants and the unflattering shapes provoked by cheap materials.

While the production carries a number of Broadway names on the creative end - most notably, songwriter Stephen Schwartz of "Wicked," "Godspell," and "Pippin" fame - the impetus to turn the movie into a stage musical came not from aspirations for New York but, as the program notes, mainly from synagogues, churches, and school groups that had been asking for a theatrical rendering of the animated feature.

Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, a young Danish performer of Tamil descent, is boyishly appealing as Moses, and though not commanding in stature, projects convincing sincerity, and possesses an appealing voice. Most of the other men in the cast aren't able to make strong impressions, which most become a problem with Jason Gotay as Moses' bland royal boyhood buddy Ramses, and Will Mann as the de-humored high priest Hotep. In comically shrewish roles, Brennyn Lark and Jamila Sabares-Klemm help enliven the proceedings as, respectively, the spouses of Moses and Ramses.

Stephen Schwartz has augmented the songs written for the movie, which included the generic pop anthem "When You Believe," with songs that are mostly pleasantly unmemorable. His son, Scott Schwartz, has staged the musical without enough imagination to compensate for limited resources, often relying on Sean Cheesman's choreography that erratically serves that purpose with routines both artsy-awkward and helpfully imaginative.

After its Mountain View run, with Jeyaratnam again in the title role, the musical will be staged at the Fredericia Theatre in Denmark, which has declared its own production the world premiere. And then, presumably, it's onto the churches, synagogues, and school groups that will begin tithing royalties.

"The Prince of Egypt" will run at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through Nov. 5. Tickets are $40-$100. Call (650) 463-1960 or go to theatreworks.org.

A young Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) takes a chariot for a joy ride in TheatreWorks' production of the new stage musical based on the animated feature "The Prince of Egypt." Photo: Kevin Berne