Yesterday, my friend and I went to see the new stage musical The Prince of Egypt at the Mountain View Center for The Performing Arts. It’s a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production in collaboration with Fredericia Teater in Denmark, where it will be staged in April with a Danish cast and the same actor playing Moses. The musical is directed by Scott Schwartz, son of the composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the songs for the film and additional numbers for this stage version.
The drive down to Mountain View from San Francisco, where we live, is a lot longer than I realized. I don’t have a car, so I don’t get out of the city often enough. We got there early, and parking was easy.
When we went got inside the theatre, I asked the young woman at the information desk for the location of the stage door. She looked somewhat alarmed and asked me why I wanted to know. Wow, really? I always like to visit the stage door after a show to meet to some of the actors. She explained that she wasn’t allowed to take people backstage, but that’s not what I was asking. Anyway, she pointed out the door, not at the side or back of the theatre, but in the lobby far too close to a women’s restroom. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our seats were in the second row of the balcony on an aisle in the center section. There was very little leg room, but the sight lines were fine and the raked seating allowed me see over the folks in front. Unfortunately, the family in front of us had a small boy, about 7 years old, and when seated, he couldn’t see over the solid balcony wall. His mother told me they asked for a booster seat, but the theatre doesn’t have them. I think the Center staff should accommodate small children better, and they should warn folks with kids about that first balcony row. There were quite a few children in the audience, being a matinee for a musical based on a popular animated film.
It became immediately clear during the opening song that the balcony acoustics are very poor. The sound was muddy, especially during solos. It also wasn’t loud enough. I don’t know if the problem is with the mics or the theatre acoustics or both, but it was disappointing.
The set design for The Prince of Egypt utilized a roughly diagonal platform with irregular curved edges, raked at the back. The background was a flat scrim with a wide solid piece, well above the stage, used for various projections—palm trees, arches, hieroglyphics, stars, mountains, etc. The dancers/ensemble moved an assortment of lightly-colored “stones” to create walls, barges, seats, and thrones throughout the show. When Moses was enjoying the hospitality of the Midianites in the desert, patterned rugs and colored tent walls were used instead of the stones. The set was enhanced by the lighting design, especially the lighting projections, including ones suggesting sand dunes and reflections on moving water. The balcony was a good place to view and appreciate these effects.
The dancers and the choreography by Sean Cheesman were excellent. Whether playing river waves, chariots and horses, the burning bush, or actual people, the dancing ensemble was the best aspect of the production. Jason Gotay as Ramses and Diluckshan Jeyaratnam as Moses were both winning and energetic as young princes. Jeyaratnam is perhaps not mature enough for the authority required in the second act. All of the actresses were consistently good and had beautiful voices, including child actor Natalie Schroeder as young Miriam and young Leah. David Crane’s Aaron was the easiest soloist to understand from my balcony seat, so I especially appreciated his performance.
Back to the stage door. There was a long line for the women’s bathroom after the show. The women were facing the bathroom with their backs to the stage door a few feet away. I watched a number of performers open the stage door and hit the women. Definitely a design flaw, and another issue that the theatre staff could easily address. Several of the ensemble came out to the lobby, and I got to say a quick hello to Alison Mixon, Dominic Dagdagan, and Ramone Owens.
I have not seen the original animated film, so I had no preconceived ideas about The Prince of Egypt. I have seen the DVD of the 2004 stage musical The Ten Commandments with Val Kilmer as Moses. (And Kilmer voices Moses in The Prince of Egypt film.) I tried not to compare the two, but I was very curious to see if baby Moses floating in the river was handled better. I’m happy to report that dancers playing water waves carrying the basket along to Pharaoh’s wife was much more effective.
Wait, Pharaoh’s wife? In the Bible, it’s Pharaoh’s daughter that adopts baby Moses. I re-read some of Exodus today, and it’s short on details but it does specify this. The names of the Pharaohs, the relationship between young Moses and young Ramses—these are not in Exodus. A lot of the story we’re familiar with comes from Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments, especially the 1956 version. Still, I found it jarring when The Prince of Egypt strayed from the familiar, especially at the end.
There’s a reason this musical is called The Prince of Egypt, and not Moses or Let My People Go. In fact, it might be more accurate to call it The Princes of Egypt. Moses and Ramses are both central characters, with the primary focus on their relationship, to each other and to the other members of the royal family. The anguish that Moses expresses at the deaths of the Egyptian first-borns (the song For The Rest of My Life) seems more heartfelt than what he expresses for the suffering of his people. Ramses tells Moses that he changed his mind about releasing the Hebrew slaves because Moses betrayed him and the family. Moses comes back with “It’s not about YOU!” Ramses’ fervent reply, “It’s always about ME!” got the strongest reaction from the audience.
Driving home from the show, my friend and I tried to pinpoint what was missing from The Prince of Egypt. Not all the songs are memorable, with only When You Believe moving enough to inspire a strong emotional response. It’s obviously a challenge to bring freshness to a well-known story, but the dancing helped a lot. I waited to read reviews until I had the chance to judge for myself. I have to agree with Lily Janiak who writes about the secularization of the story. Except for the brief but effective burning bush, it’s not really clear that the God of the Hebrews is guiding Moses. The Egyptian religion gets a longer introduction in the song Ma’at. Even the song When You Believe (“Who knows what miracles you can achieve, when you believe, somehow you will, you will when you believe”) is open to interpretation. Is it God performing miracles through you, or is it believing enough in something? Anything? Yourself?
Is The Prince of Egypt ready for Broadway? I don’t think so. Am I glad we made the effort to see it? Definitely. Especially when followed by a dinner of Indian food. There’s nothing like plagues and parting the Red Sea to work up an appetite!
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
The Prince of Egypt: Moses and Ramses racing chariots
Tzipporah (Brennyn Lark) and Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam)
The Prince of Egypt dancers
Ramses (Jason Gotay) Hotep (Will Mann) & Nefertari (Jamila Sabares-Klemm)
Photo credits: The Prince of Egypt stage photos are by Kevin Berne for TheatreWorks. The theatre photo is my own.