Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
The Ten Commandments
What is so distressing about the presence of Val Kilmer as Moses in The Ten Commandments is not that he's horribly miscast, vocally outclassed by the rest of the company and totally at sea with a large-scale live production, although this is all true. The real problem is that Kilmer's name alone is enough to encourage people to fork over $100 each to see this thing, which is, at best, a curiosity worth maybe a quarter of that amount. Moreover, Kilmer's Hollywood stardom can attract audience members who usually don't attend musical theatre, and the production may then mislead them into thinking that The Ten Commandments represents the state of the art of musical theatre - when, in truth, it is an amalgamation of everything that can go wrong with a musical production with too much money and not enough brains.
To begin with the basics, the show has no book. This isn't to say it is a sung-through pop opera. Instead, The Ten Commandments is a loosely connected series of over thirty songs, each musicalizing a plot point in the story, but there are no attempts made to create anything remotely resembling a story arc for any of the characters. We see Moses pulled from the water, Moses as an adult at Ramses' side, Moses attacking a slave driver, Moses banished from Egypt, and so forth. But we never see Moses develop. What compels him to attack the slave driver? What is his reaction to being banished? We never know. When Moses stumbles upon the burning bush in the desert and hears God's command, he doesn't react at all. Where is his awe at God's presence? Is it easy for him to cast aside the Egyptian gods he believed in for his entire life? The musical doesn't care. If a point cannot be made by the lyrics of a song alone, it simply doesn't get made.
The songs, with few exceptions, are undistinguished pop songs. There's little theatricality in Patrick Leonard's music itself - many of the songs, if given different lyrics, could easily be shuffled to different places in the show with little change in effect. While there are a few songs which have a distinct musical character, such as Ramses' rocking "Glory of Ra," or Nefertiti's seductive "Can You Do That For Me?," the musical choices don't have any connection to the character or the plot. Why does Ramses rock out in excitement over everything built by the slaves? Why would his wife use her womanly wiles when angry at Ramses for the destruction wrought by the plagues on Egypt? It seems completely random. And yet, at least these songs stand out from the rest as having some sort of style. When you're talking about The Ten Commandments, you start awarding partial credit for attempts.
Maribeth Derry's lyrics are, at best, bad, and at worst, actually offensive. (A second act lyric in which the former slaves sing that, although they had to work hard in Egypt, they always "had time to have some fun," should be taken out back and shot.) The lyrics are comprised of such trite expressions as "Love is thicker than blood," and " belongs to something greater than just you and I." These are peppered with annoying colloquialisms that have no place in a purportedly serious musical taking place in Biblical times. The show lacks any credibility when it has a woman comment, "Oooh, he's fine" upon seeing Moses, or Ramses saying to Moses, "You're acting kinda strange."
The musical hopes to be noteworthy for its expansive stage and its cast of fifty. And Giantito Burchiellaro's set - a huge Egyptian backdrop complemented by three video screens - is pretty impressive. But it isn't used correctly. The Kodak has an absolutely huge stage area, both on the ground and in the air. Although the show's set has the ability to work on two levels, it rarely does so, and the result is that the cast, even in great numbers, appears lost in the huge space. This is accentuated by Travis Payne's choreography in which everyone is "walking like an Egyptian" in synch, rather than moving in a way that better uses the entire stage.
There are opportunities for some incredible special effects - the ten plagues, for example - but the show chooses instead to portray many of them with film effects alone. The plague of blood is shown by a river on the video screens turning red. The result is that this hugely expensive musical looks almost cheap. While there is a special effect used for the parting of the red sea, it is confusing and its effectiveness is diminished by the fact the necessary set pieces are seen both entering and exiting. But again, at least they tried to show this via stagecraft rather than copping out and just showing it on film.
The performers are amplified very loudly, and no effort is made for the amplified voices to have any relationship to where the performers are standing on stage. Robert Iscove's direction frequently makes it difficult to tell exactly who is singing, particularly when the singer is walking around the stage with everyone else, while some other individual is highlighted by his position.
The supporting vocalists all sing solidly and powerfully, and some, like Nita Whitaker as Zipporah, manage to convey a touch of charisma despite the limitations of the lyrics and amplification. Kilmer is the weak link here; his voice is neither clear nor strong, and he sings without enthusiasm. The contrast is no greater than when, after seeing the burning bush, Kilmer talk-sings his way through "Why Me?," a song apparently intended as the theme of a reluctant hero railing against his fate, but Kilmer sleepwalks through it. It is immediately followed by Kevin Earley's Ramses singing "Glory of Ra," with no vocal holds barred. If you didn't know how the story would end, you'd put your money on Ramses. Other vocal standouts are Alisan Porter, who turns in an enthusiastic Miriam, and Adam Lambert as Joshua, the character who is given all the big vocal work on behalf of the Hebrews because Kilmer's Moses can't handle it.
Because there is some solid vocal talent in the show, it isn't exactly a disaster of Biblical proportions. But the fact that the talent is so horribly misused is certainly a tragedy.
The Ten Commandments runs at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets, contact Ticketmaster.
BCBGMaxAzria Entertainment Presents The Ten Commandments. Songs Composed by Patrick Leonard; Lyrics by Maribeth Derry. Scenic Design by Giantito Burchiellaro; Costume Design by Max Azria; Associate Costume Designer Francine Lecoultre; Lighting Design by Garrett Caine; Sound Design by Jon Gottlieb & Philip G. Allen; Special Visual Effects by Robert W. Rang, INC; Musical Director Greg Chun; Orchestrator Mark Gasbarro; Vocal Arranger Chris Guardino. Created and Originally Directed by Elie Chouraqui; Original Idea by Albert Cohen. Casting by Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A.; Production Stage Manager Ray Gin; General Manager IDEA Entertainment & Lawrence O'Connor. Marketing by TMG - The Marketing Group; Press Representatives Davidson & Choy Publicity; Community Outreach The Selling Point & The DuVernay Agency; Creative Agency Graphic Orb Inc. Producers BCBGMaxAzria Entertainment, Max Azria & Charles Cohen. Co-Producer 7 Art Production, Elie Chouraqui, Albert Cohen & Dove Attia. Choreographer Travis Payne; Executive Music Producer George Acogny. Directed by Robert Iscove.