Review - The Prince of Egypt at the Dominion Theatre
In 2017, a musical premiered on Broadway called Prince of Broadway. It celebrated the life and career of the powerful and prolific Broadway producer and director Harold Prince, whose career spanned nearly seven decades before he died last year, aged 91. That career retrospective turned out to be his final directing credit amongst shows that earned him a record 21 Tony Awards, including eight for directing the original landmark productions of Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Follies, Candide, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.
It's a long way, alas, from that roll call of honour to The Prince of Egypt, a show that has nothing to do with the Prince of Broadway at all but is the latest animated cartoon feature to be adapted for the stage, in the wake of such Broadway and West End successes as Disney's The Beauty and the Beast (which coincidentally also played at the Dominion), The Lion King and Aladdin. Unfortunately, this one is not even in the league of such box office flops as The Little Mermaid and (the non-Disney) Anastasia, both of which are yet to make a transfer to London.
The Prince of Egypt, based on the 1998 inaugural feature from Dreamworks Animation, is a biblical pageant that comes with all the weighty, earnest and portentous air of an end-of-year Nativity project, though on a considerably larger budget.
Stephen Schwartz, who won an Oscar for the big power ballad "When You Believe" from the film score that became an enduring pop hit by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, has reprised his songwriting duties here, adding ten new songs to the film's original seven songs, five of which have been preserved here (albeit extensively revised). But sadly, after sitting through nearly two and a half hours of watching this turgid history story unfold, I couldn't join in "When You Believe"'s aspirational cry: "There can be miracles/ When you believe/ Though hope is frail/ Its hard to kill/ Who knows what miracles/ You can achieve/ When you believe somehow you will/ You will when you believe".
By the time the familiar chords of this song struck up, I couldn't believe in any of it, let alone hold out any hope of a redemptive musical miracle occurring.
It's not for lack of effort on the part of the creative team and hard-working cast, though: the leaden material just seems to resist theatrical adaptation. Sure, there's are moments of spectacle, like the parting of the Red Sea (and then its rushing in again over the Egyptian soldiers who are chasing the Hebrews towards their Promised Land), but Jon Driscoll's projections onto the multi-leveled set by Kevin Depinet don't exactly thrill or chill.
It doesn't help that Philip Lazebnik's book, based on his own screenplay for the film that he also wrote, plods from one incident to another with little character or much narrative development. The actors are left not so much filling blanks but playing them. Accomplished musical theatre actors like Liam Tamne and Luke Brady - who are playing Ramses and Moses respectively, raised as brothers after the abandoned baby Moses is found in the bullrushes and find themselves on significantly different life paths - have little to wrestle with dramatically. Though I briefly thought of our own Prince William and Harry, their bigger challenge is to do a lot of emoting and delivering power notes from their terrific lungs.
Similarly marooned in a dramatic wasteland are such brilliant musical theatre stars as Christine Allado (original cast of Hamilton), Alexia Khadime (The Book of Mormon) and Debbie Kurup (The Bodyguard), while the superb RSC associate actor Joe Dixon and the always-reliable Gary Wilmot are strangely wasted in patriarchal roles.
There's plenty of deeply repetitive though undoubtedly athletic choreography from Sean Cheesman to occasionally distract the eye, There's also full-bodied sound from Gareth Owen, and a busily lush-sounding orchestral accompaniment from a band under the musical direction of Dave Rose, but little imagination in the telling of the production from director Scott Schwartz (son of the composer).
The Prince of Egypt tickets are available now.