TheatreWorks’ ‘The Prince of Egypt’ brings a big story to life in a spectacular way

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks is no stranger to world premieres, or even to working with the powerful father-son artistic duo of Stephen and Scott Schwartz. Lest audiences think that the current TheatreWorks production of The Prince of Egypt is routine in any way, they can rest assured that it is not. The show is adapted and expanded from the 1998 DreamWorks film of the same name, and conveys its story of biblical proportions in an immensely creative and captivating way while providing some breathtaking theatre. The Prince of Egypt tells the story chronicling the early life of Moses up through his awakening as one of the Hebrews on his quest to “let his people go.” The production is a world premiere that Mountain View audiences will savor for reasons that will be described shortly. What will be seen on stage; however, stems from a collaboration that breaks new ground for TheatreWorks. The stage adaptation by Stephen Schwartz and Philip LaZebnik is being mounted in collaboration with the acclaimed Fredericia Teater in Denmark. Once the Mountain View run completes, Diluckshan Jeyaratnam (Moses) will head back to his homeland to star in the European portion of this co-world premiere in both Fredericia and Copenhagen, telling the story in both Danish and English beginning in April 2018.

What makes this production so spectacular? It’s all in the storytelling. The cast is a talented, diverse, international troupe that explodes with the grandeur and precision this story demands. The grand scale, with empires and monumental physical elements from the Egyptian pyramids, to the river Nile, the expansive desert, and the Red Sea are well-known, and generally not seen on stage. In a film, these can be included directly, but on stage, while they could be projected, a far more creative approach can also be applied. Per director Scott Schwartz:

“We call on cloth, light, and dance to represent water, fire, plagues, and more.”

An abstract projection space hangs above the stage, and while some projections add to the scene definition, they are never overpowering or obtrusive. On the floor, the stage contains a raked, multi-part main platform, the front of which hangs precipitously over the orchestra pit. At one point Moses and his wife Tzipporah (Brennyn Lark) are drawn downstage, and they dangle their sandaled feet over the edge during a pivotal moment.

There are numerous cement blocks of varying sizes that the actors use to smoothly build on the spot into trappings such as Pharaoh’s throne, the walls of a temple, or the bank of a waterway. The block structures pose a slight danger though as they are not anchored. As a result, they can cause an actor to trip on occasion as happened on the second press night when Jeyaratnam slipped while stepping onto the river bank at one point. Fortunately, a fellow actor kept him from falling.

In this production, beyond the blocks, the dancers create most of the monumental physical elements in an imaginative odyssey unique to the stage. As the baby Moses is sent on his journey down the Nile, the dancers become the roiling waters, the basket buoyed along its reaches atop their elegant movements. In many cases, there is no line between Kevin Depinet’s scenic design and Sean Cheesman’s choreography as they blend together seamlessly.

The choreography is stunning throughout the production. Even when not portraying nature or physical structures, the movement is often gymnastic and intense, and it is executed with impressive precision and energy. The dancing is so vigorous in fact, that the 28-member cast includes some extra singers to cover during moments when certain dancers would be far too out of breath to simultaneously dance and sing.

The dramatic action is also greatly enhanced by movement inspired settings. In one affable bonding sequence, brothers Moses and Ramses (Jason Gotay) wreak a bit of unintentional havoc in their chariot race. Their chariots are brilliantly formed by the dancers carrying the exuberant young men on their quest to each outdo the other while leaving destruction in their wake.

Another fascinating use of movement to portray a physical entity is when Moses encounters the Burning Bush, brilliantly portrayed by ensemble dancers. Their movements give life to the “flames” and voice to the instructions that Moses receives in a captivating scene.

Several other scenes are invoked primarily through movement, and they stimulate the audience’s imagination in exciting ways. The one major instance that breaks the trend is when the climactic final scene is enacted, this time using cloth instead of dancers. The illusion works to a point, but it is inverted (i.e., flows in the wrong direction), and its execution is not as smooth as either the block-building or movement inspired monuments.

Stephen Schwartz began with most of the music from the film, only removing “Playing with the Big Boys” as Hotep’s (Will Mann) sidekick Huy is the one notable character not in the stage adaptation. Yocheved’s lovely “River Lullaby” is merged into the opening number “Deliver Us”, and twelve new songs are added for the stage, greatly expanding the musical aspects of the story. Some of these new songs are molded from non-vocal segments of the film score, but most are brand new. In a few cases, they put some of the film dialog into song, but in most, they expand the story, adding complexity and nuance to deepen the plot.

The orchestration, with execution commanded by music director William Liberatore, is more intimate than the film score. It is compressed into a small, 9-member pit orchestra including: three orchestral strings; three brass; guitar; percussion; and Liberatore as the player/conductor on keyboard filling in the rest. The sound is larger than what might be expected from such a compressed pit. The music is polished, lush, and precise as it has evolved through the development/preview process.

The story from the DreamWorks film is included, but it is greatly expanded, particularly exploring the complicated relationship between Moses and Ramses. Jeyaratnam and Gotay capture the turmoil that each brother experiences quite well, although they are slightly mismatched vocally at times, Jeyaratnam being the stronger singer. There are several very touching moments where the conflicting loyalties between family and heritage are brought to the forefront allowing for the shades of gray that aren’t evident in the film version.

The other relationships that have far more depth than the film are between Moses and Tzipporah and between Ramses and Nefertari (Jamila Sabares-Klemm). Both domestic relationships are explored in more detail, and though possibly shocking for these times, in both cases, the wives are portrayed as strong, intelligent women who are full partners in their marriages.

Performances run 2 hours and 15 minutes including the intermission, though it feels much shorter. While the show is likely to continue to grow and evolve a bit when it gets to the next phase of its world premiere, this production soars and enthralls. The Prince of Egypt is entertainment on a grand scale, suitable for the entire family.

What:  The Prince of Egypt, based on the DreamWorks Animated Film; Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Book by Philip LaZebnik

Where:  Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View

When:  Continues through 5 November 2017

Here’s a snippet to whet the appetite:

See http://theatreworks.org/201718-season/201718-season/prince-of-egypt/, email boxoffice@theatreworks.org, or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photo credits: Kevin Berne, video courtesy of TheatreWorks)

Background References:
The Prince of Egypt (stream via Amazon Video)
The Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks Animated DVD)
The Prince of Egypt (film soundtrack)

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