The 1998 beloved DreamWorks animation makes for a spectacular and affecting production at the Dominion Theatre.
Originally starring Luke Brady, Liam Tamne, Christine Allado, Alexia Khadime, Joe Dixon, Debbie Kurup, Adam Pearce, Tanisha Spring, and Silas Wyatt-Barke
An iconic film in its own right, The Prince of Egypt entranced audiences back in 1998, even earning an Oscar for “When You Believe”. What with musical adaptations of films cropping up with abandon, including The Lion King, Aladdin, Mary Poppins, Frozen, Pretty Woman, Anastasia and Mean Girls, it was only a matter of time before The Prince of Egypt had the same treatment. Unlike the others, however, The Prince of Egypt hosts an epic number of expansive locations, from towering pyramids to atmospheric crypts, and poses a highly logistical challenge to bring the biblically large (pun intended) tale to the stage.
Originally opening for previews at the Dominion Theatre on 5 February 2020, with opening night soon following on 25 February, The Prince of Egypt, like all other shows, closed its doors on 17 March as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, after a mere six weeks. Having fortunately now reopened, it has announced its closure date for 8 January 2022.
This reviewer, as an unashamed ’90s child was utterly besotted with the film and was greatly eager to see how it translated into a stage musical. Viewing it early in previews (11 February), the effect was less than spectacular, with the cast members being dwarfed by the gargantuan stage and the host of projections that surrounded them. The pace seemed to lag, and the performances were far from assured. Many of the songs seemed unnecessary and unfocussed. Having viewed it again (18 September 2021), this reviewer shall have to eat their words.
With significantly more confident, well rounded performances which live up to the impressive staging, The Prince of Egypt soars, delivering an affecting tale of faith in dire times, and the diverging destinies of two brothers.
For those not au fait with the Book of Exodus, The Prince of Egypt concerns the biblical story of Moses. Sent down the River Nile in a basket to protect him from being killed due to the Pharaoh’s order of killing all the Hebrew baby boys, Moses – in a twist of fate that in any other tale than the literal Bible would probably be deemed “too convenient” – is found by Queen Tuya (Debbie Kurup), who adopts Moses as one of her own children. Years later, Moses (Luke Brady) and brother Ramses (Liam Tamne) do not take their jobs as Princes nearly seriously enough for Pharaoh Seti’s (Joe Dixon) liking, as he continues to put pressure on older brother Ramses, while holding Moses in much higher esteem.
It is only a matter of time, however, before Moses discovers his actual identity and flees into the desert, ignoring brother Ramses’ desperate pleas. Hearing the word of God at the Burning Bush, Moses dedicates himself to freeing the Hebrews from slavery. Returning to Egypt, however, he discovers that the force he now fights against is not father Seti, but instead his beloved brother, who has become Pharaoh following Seti’s death.
Oh, and Moses also has a love interest, Tzipporah (Christine Allado), and a biological brother, Aaron (Silas Wyatt-Barke) and sister Miriam (Alexia Khadmine) who are, well, there I guess.
When tackling the definition of a Biblical epic, logistics of staging are incredibly challenging, even on a stage as mammoth as that provided by the Dominion Theatre. However, through the use of clever, well-rendered projections (Jon Driscoll), on two separate backscreens as well as on dangling fringe which extends from the proscenium to arc around the front part of the stalls helps create an incredibly sense of majesty as well as a brilliant illusion of depth. This fringing really comes into its own when achieving the climactic episode in which Moses leads the Israelites across the Red Sea, as does the irregularly shaped hydraulic platform on which much of the action rests. These projections have certainly been made to be more effective than during previews, where they were far more distracting than anything else. Despite the brilliance of these elements of staging, however, far more physical set pieces could have used, instead of relying on the vast ensemble to ferry blocks on and off stage in a manner similar to a GCSE Drama performance. Despite the effect achieved by having a floating projection screen, set designer Kevin Depinet might have considered the effect of this upon eliminating the possibility of flying sets in and out.
Fortunately, there is plenty else to distract the audience from the comparative lack of physical set pieces (though many doubtless do not notice this, owing to the stunning use of projections). Not only is the Dominion impressive in its size, but so too is the sprawling cast and huge orchestra. This heavenly combination makes for a stunning, emotive and epic sound. Hits “Deliver Us” and “When You Believe” definitely soar and tug frantically at the audience’s heartstrings, showcasing the utter despair and hopelessness of the Hebrews. The depth of sound achieved by the 15-piece orchestra cannot be underestimated, and any music department debating whether or not to downsize need only sit in the Dominion to be convinced of the fundamental necessity of live musicians.
The ensemble carry this show on their shoulders (sometimes literally), from being used for elements of set manoeuvring, being Ramses and Moses’ chariots and representing a whole host of abstract terrors. Sometimes they are even permitted to be actual human beings. Aside from massively contributing to the superlative majesty of the vocals, without the ensemble the plight of the Hebrew slaves would be nowhere near as keenly felt. From the first number, the desperate “Deliver Us” as they stagger, exhausted, onto stage, to the jubilant, energetic joy of “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, the power of giving a face to this struggle cannot be underestimated. The choreography from Sean Cheesman is varied and emotive, and whether the ensemble is representing the dangerous sands of the desert, or malnourished slaves, every move is brilliantly powerful. Every member of the ensemble is committing fully to immersing the audience in the universe, and really helps to sell the fraught, desperate energy as the Hebrews pull and strain against Ramses’ rule.
The costumes are potentially the weakest part of the production. With such an expansive cast, lots of the costumes look cheap. Though Moses’ very cosy costume certainly gives him a sense of rustic authority, and these earth tones are more than pleasurable, poor Tzipporah finds herself modelled on Esmeralda for the vast majority of the show. It is mainly the costumes which are meant to look impressive which suffer, such as Ramses’ Pharaoh costume which, for some reason, features garishly blue boots with specifically his toes sticking out. It is not a strong look, not least because it looks dreadfully plastic.
In many ways, The Prince of Egypt serves as an antithesis to Stephen Schwartz’s other famed musical, Wicked. Wicked centralises the relationship between its two female leads, traditionally conceived of as polar opposites: the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Good Witch Glinda. While the trajectory of Wicked ultimately sees these two women united despite their initial differences, The Prince of Egypt does the opposite, showing two brothers torn apart by their diverging destinies.
While this theme was not abundantly clear amongst the chaos of first previews more than eighteen months ago, it is far more evident now. The Act 1 finale proclaims “This is why you were born. This is what you were made for. This is who you will be, the rest or your long life through”, as we see Moses ready himself to free the Hebrews, while Ramses becomes Pharaoh. There is a fundamental difference to the paths that the two brothers find themselves walking. There is also brilliant development achieved between Act 1 number “Make It Right”, where Ramses begs Moses to stay, proclaiming that he can make everything right and fix things while Moses remains steadfast, compared to “The Plagues”, where Moses is begging Ramses to fix everything, while Ramses refuses.
Since the show first opened, Luke Brady had certainly grown into the role of Moses. Amongst the pageantry and wizardry available on the gargantuan scape that is The Dominion’s stage, it can be challenging to command the audience’s attention. However, the myriad emotions that Brady taps into to show Moses’ identity crisis as he realises that his identity as a prince has all been a falsehood, and that the slaves that he has stood by and watched the maltreatment of is actually where he comes from is hugely affecting. Brady manages to take Moses from an entitled, immature, pampered prince right through to the moral figure of justice which he ultimately becomes. With multiple solos during the show, Brady highlights Moses’ longing to make an impact upon the world in “Footprints on the Sand”, despite its somewhat lacking lyrics, and soars among the emotional turmoil of “All I Ever Wanted” and somehow manages to make a sympathetic situation out of “For the Rest of My Life”.
In contrast, Liam Tamne as Ramses has yet to find a way to make himself seen amongst the void of the Dominion’s stage. This is not helped by the fact that Ramses as a character is not written particularly consistently. He is not permitted to have much emotion rolling over from scene to scene. Were Ramses’ defiance of Moses within Act 2 have been motivated by his feelings of betrayal of Moses turning his back on him during “Make It Right”, or for being absent for Seti’s death, then it may have made his character’s journey feel more complete. Instead, Ramses is regularly manipulated by those around him. He is defined by a need to please other people, and this results in a character who regularly switches his allegiances in a way that make him feel like a human who doesn’t typically experience emotion. Even when Moses’ Plagues result in the death of Ramses’ son, Ramses doesn’t seem particularly angry. He stops short of actually enacting revenge on Moses, backing away before the point of no return, and allowing the more traditional villain Hotep (Adam Pearce) take this fateful step. The book seems insistent on not making Ramses a villain, but does not create a more complex character in lieu. Instead, they sort of craft a character who seems to lack any sort of agency or independent thought.
It is worth noting that in the biblical story, and indeed the film that it is based on, have different endings for Ramses. In the bible, Ramses leads the Egyptians across the Red Sea against Moses, at which point the Red Sea swallows and drowns them. In The Prince of Egypt this is similar, with Ramses, angry and bitter at the way that he has been humiliated by Moses in front of his people as well as the death of his child, leads the army himself, and he alone is spared the might of God. Even within the narrative universe where the position of being Pharaoh is shown to be particularly unstable due to uprising, Ramses still lacks any sort of anger or sense of vengeance against Moses. At the end, he finally stands up to the devious machinations of Hotep by actually making his own decision, though the result of this decision is for Hotep to claim the army for himself and ultimately lead to defeat. For Ramses to stand on the opposite side of the Red Sea to Moses and sing of the two of them being the same and seeking their own destiny while Moses literally was responsible for the death of Ramses child seems strange. There doesn’t seem to be enough motivation within the script to justify this change within Ramses. It would have made more sense for him not to achieve a sense of agency by the end if his story were to be wrapped up so neatly. He could still have survived, but the concept of forgiving his brother seems somewhat out of the realms of possibility. Killing him is a little far, perhaps, but complete forgiveness as is displayed here is unrealistic and jarring.
It is also unfortunate that the songs that Tamne is required to sing are blisteringly high and it is apparent that he cannot both sing these notes and also emote at the same time. It is no small task from even the most seasoned performer, but singing those notes in “Make It Right” while also having to stand in a singular spot looks awkward and uncomfortable and prevents the audience from rooting for Moses and Ramses’ relationship in the way that the book clearly wants us to. For a show that’s about the parallel but diverging destinies of two brothers, it does not do nearly enough to focus upon why the audience should care about that relationship. While the audience does care for and root for Moses, Ramses is undeniably the trickier to root for but neither the performance nor the book do enough to make him a sympathetic character, and instead elect to make him easily manipulated. There is no shame in an ending which is a little messy or unresolved. To have Ramses committed to hating Moses by the end of the musical would make far more narrative sense than the ending which is chosen.
It is these concepts which suffer when translating a biblical text into a show that is to be relatable to a modern audience. Here, Moses as a character is permitted far more nuance than was afforded in the Bible (turns out character development wasn’t a priority whilst writing this religious text – utterly baffling), so it makes the climax of the Plagues seem incredibly drastic and somewhat uncomfortable. Here is a story of a God, and his mouthpiece, intentionally murdering children. Of course, Ramses’ actions are also inexcusable, and the treatment of the slaves is abhorrent. Yet, it is unclear where the show expects our allegiances to be. Here we have the massacre of innocent beings – children, no less – because of the actions of one man. Are we to blame Moses for this act? Is it on Ramses’ hands? Is it on God’s?
It is a question which the show does not really provide an answer to, but it does lean heavily into the resultant emotions from this. Since Moses sings “For the Rest of My Life”, expressing his remorse, it perhaps suggests that the show wants us to believe that Moses had no choice, or was unwilling in this act and was compelled to by God. But what does that suggest about the God that Moses is serving? It is certainly not an act of mercy, but one of cruelty and of vengeance. And if, indeed, we are to believe, as perhaps Ramses may, that this is Ramses fault, then this could perhaps be reflected in his ending. Could there have been a reprise of “For the Rest of My Life”, where Ramses concedes his own part to play within that scenario? Might the skilling of the first-born son be a direct reference to the Pharaoh’s edict for killing all first-born Hebrew sons? Is it fair to punish Ramses for actions that he was not even responsible for? It feels like there isn’t a satisfactory ending between Ramses and Moses without addressing the culpability within that situation, and the show raises some uncomfortable existential and religious questions without resolving them. Of course, it doesn’t need to be completely resolved, nor does it have a definite answer, but it’s a plot point that is slightly examined before swiftly pulled away from.
These uncomfortable moments aside, Alexia Khadime is incredibly committed from the moment she first sets foot on stage, really selling Miriam’s utter desperation at her plight, as well as her ardent love and faith in Moses. The depth of emotion in her voice in “When You Believe” sends goosebumps down the spine. Christine Allado is also assured in her fierce portrayal of Tzipporah, a character who could otherwise be one-dimensional, but manages to reconcile all of Tzipporah’s varied qualities and create someone who feels real and relatable.
Though Stephen Schwartz’s new additions to the soundtrack never quite match the pinnacle of those already written for the film, the incredible orchestrations help these moments to soar, even if there are few of them that will stick in the mind past curtain. Within these new songs, however, Schwartz has managed to highlight the new themes evident in the stage musical compared to the film, and include multiple parallels to Ramses and Moses’ relationship littered throughout, even if the ending proves wanting.
Overall, The Prince of Egypt is a stunning production. The phenomenal orchestra and ensemble elevate this material, and the ultimate output is highly emotive, affecting and visually spectacular. This is certainly one to watch before it has its final bow in January 2022.
The Prince of Egypt is playing until January 8 2022 at The Dominion Theatre. Purchase tickets here.