"The Prince of Egypt" premieres in its newest incarnation presented by TheatreWorks, wowing local audiences before it heads to its partner location in Denmark. TheatreWorks continues its commitment to producing new creations destined for life beyond Mountain View, and lavishes its resources in this gorgeous, talent-filled production.
Stephen Schwartz, of "Wicked" and "Godspell" fame, wrote the songs and lyrics for the DreamWorks film of 1998, and has built on those but substantially expanded them for the stage musical. He's joined by Philip LaZebnik on the book, and direction by his son Scott Schwartz. With a multinational, multi-ethnic and multitalented cast, and fabulous scenic imagery, the production delivers a showstopper evening of excellent entertainment.
The book loosely follows the Exodus story but mostly resembles the plot of the animated film, which in turn followed the plot of the 1956 movie "The Ten Commandments." Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) is cast on the Nile River in a woven basket by his mother Yocheved (Ayelet Firstenberg) in order to save him from an edict killing all Hebrew male babies. Found and adopted by Pharaoh's wife, Queen Tuya (Christina Sajous), Moses grows up as the brother of her natural son, Ramses (Jason Gotay).
Fast forward to a wild chariot race through town, after which the two princes, now young men, are chastised by Priest Hotep (Will Mann) and Pharaoh Seti (Tom Nelis). Dad especially wants to impress on Ramses the importance of taking responsibility, as he will one day become Pharaoh. Later, Pharaoh returns victorious from conquering enemies, bringing the gift of a captured Midianite slave girl, Tzipporah (Brennyn Lark), who makes an indelible impression on both princes. She escapes, but leaves Moses with parting words that make him begin to question his place and his life.
Once Moses discovers his true ancestry, fleeing to the desert and living with the Midianites, the story unfolds to bring him into conflict with Ramses. He becomes a shepherd and marries Tzipporah, but sees a burning bush that commands him to return to Egypt to free his people. Moses must obey, and returns to confront Ramses, his estranged brother.
The rest, as they say, is biblical, except for some rather modern twists thrown in by Schwartz and LaZebnik, some which might surprise theological purists. Nevertheless, the story comes to a resounding and heartfelt conclusion with sentiment relevant to our own time, freeing the plot from its religious underpinnings and giving it a more secular slant. The niche for this new musical is a little unclear yet — not entirely a "family" show, but also not solely for kids or for adults. As a known narrative reframed as a story of two brothers seeking identity and redemption, it leans to adult fare, but older children will certainly enjoy the spectacle and the broader strokes of the legendary tale.
The production soars with an amazing, tireless ensemble, all of whom play numerous roles while dancing and singing through practically the entire show. When all the voices are engaged, the sound is stirring and phenomenal. Movement plays a huge part in telling the story, as the ensemble is called upon to be objects, architecture, a burning bush, and the Nile, constantly in motion. Sean Cheesman's choreography is original and sometimes quirky, often startling and clever; the ensemble members thoroughly commit to this brave style and make it work.
The operatic score, with minimal spoken dialogue, frequently melds one song into the next seamlessly, demanding top vocal quality from the cast. Fortunately, they are all up to the task. Jeyaratnam spins vocal silk, and then brings the finish home with a powerful resonant sound. His inspiring rendition of "Footprints in the Sand" endears him to the audience early on, and each solo is a treat. He's well-matched by Gotay, equally fine as the reluctant Pharaoh-to-be.
Fine voices abound in the principal cast, including Firstenberg, Mann, and Sajous. Lark dances and sings a feisty solo in "Dance to the Day," and Jamila Sabares-Klemm, as Ramses' bossy wife Nefertari, gives her chance to shine in "Heartless." The signature song from the film, "When You Believe," is nicely carried by Julia Motyka as Moses' sister Miriam, first in a duet with Lark before they are joined by the entire ensemble for another electrifying ending.
Epic scenic design by Kevin Depinet makes use of projections and sweeping backdrops matched to rugged free-form stage levels, so that the fluidity of action and music can play out unhindered by bulky sets. Costume design by Ann Hould-Ward gets a workout with multiple costume demands for every performer, but definitely helps us to identify tribe and status. Lighting by Mike Billings serves beautifully to highlight each musical mood and brilliantly aids in the transformation of the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts stage into the Red Sea.
William Liberatore creates a massive wall of sound with his small pit orchestra and the superb ensemble, and Scott Schwartz deserves kudos for inventive staging and coaching a new work to life.
TheatreWorks provides the gift; now it's up to you to grab it while you can — don't miss this rare opportunity to witness the birth of this dazzling new entertainment.
What: "The Prince of Egypt," music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, book by Philip LaZebnik; presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley through Nov. 5.
Where: Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Tues. & Wed. 7 p.m.; Thurs., Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; matinees at 2 p.m. Wed., Sat. & Sun.
Tickets: $40 - $100, available at theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960