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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Prince of Egypt
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of La Muerte Baila


Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, Jason Gotay and Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
It is a story as old as time itself, one known in many cultures and told to children the world over. For all who missed hearing in Sunday school or at the Seder table about the burning bush that talks, the rain of frogs, the clouds of flying insects, or the magical parting of the Red Sea, surely they do have memories of the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic movie of The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner facing off in between the ten plagues as Moses and Ramses. DreamWorks chose the story as the subject and converted it into a musical as its first animated film in 1998, leading to a 1999 Oscar for the Best Original Song for "When You Believe," sung by the divas Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Now, almost twenty years later, the writers of The Prince of Egypt—Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) and Philip LaZebnik (book)—have penned a stage musical by the same name as the film. The Prince of Egypt is truly a world premiere as it first opens at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in collaboration with Fredericia Teater, Denmark, where it will next be staged in early 2018.

The universally known story (at least by most western culture audiences) begins on the stage with the baby Moses being put in a basket into the River Nile by his Hebrew mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam in order to save him from the Egyptian Pharaoh's dictate to kill all Hebrew boy babies. Director Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen) and scenic designer Kevin Depinet have chosen to minimize scenic elements and instead rely on members of the large cast of twenty-six to roll, twist, and meander their collective bodies across the stage to become the river that receives and floats the tiny basket. Choreographer Sean Cheesman creates beautiful and intriguing ways for the cast members to ingenuously become a secret cavern's walls, a stage-filling burning bush, and the raining pestilence of terrible plagues. The dance of their many scenic formations is matched by the actual dances they perform as Hebrew slave/escapees in which bodies prance, bounce and gyrate in circles and lines with hints of future dance moves one might associate with later generations of Jews at shtetl wedding celebrations or even modern bar mitzvahs.

When baby Moses is rescued by Pharaoh's wife Tuya, he is accepted by her as a gift from the gods to raise as her adopted son along side her natural son, Ramses. The staged story progresses quickly to the two boys as rambunctious, rowdy twenty-somethings. A major strength of this show is the attention devoted to developing the relationship between these two "brothers." Theirs is a genuinely close but predictably competitive bond that any parents would hope for their same-age sons. Diluckshan Jeyaratnam and Jason Gotay are both outstanding in their portrayals as Moses and Ramses, respectively, each able to begin as joking, reckless brothers who show much love in their constant teasing and horsing around and each transforming in many nuanced ways to eventually become the "god-on-earth" Pharaoh and the freedom-demanding, plague-promising Moses. Each alters in voice, posture, facial expressions, and even eye movement and ways of gazing as they shift each role in life into positions of leadership neither initially actually seeks or wants. They exude an attractive likeability as we get to know them. Each then moves into darker territories that their respective roles push them; and while we may not agree with Ramses' ultimate choices, this story's telling opens up the possibility of our understanding some of his motives and believing some of his humanity.

As their playful rivalries shift to become opponents with life and death consequences, both actors convince us that there is still a thread of deep love and respect that binds them. A powerful message important for our present day emerges. Even when the Nile River eventually separates the two brothers forever, there is linking them a deeply felt brotherhood that the ancestors of today's Jews and Egyptians/Arabs once had. Actors, director and creators of the musical combine forces to build a strong case that, underneath the chasms of today's Middle East divisions, there are deep roots of a long-ago respect and love—feelings that survive even the conflicts of this story.

Beyond just Moses and Ramses, this stage version of The Prince of Egypt does an excellent job in developing many of the story's characters to an extent often not seen. We watch Miriam (Julia Motyka) become stronger and stronger as a leader of her people while also continuing her steady stream of support for a long-lost brother who first fails to recognize her when he is prince and she is slave. Tom Nelis as Ramses' father Seti complicates the way we might prefer to demonize the Pharaoh by showing Seti's softer sides as a loving father and his stately demands as a ruler trying to hold down his place in a long dynasty of rulers. Christina Sajous provides a moving portrayal as his Egyptian wife and queen, Tuya, as she too shows that even those we might consider our enemies do have sincere devotion to family—in this case, including her adopted, Hebrew son Moses.

When we first meet Nefertari—the arranged bride for a very reluctant Ramses—she is the epitome of snobbery, conniving, and self-centered ego. She too shifts when the ultimate tragedy of losing her first born occurs, with Jamila Sabares-Klemm winning through her strong performance our deserved sympathy for her suffering. Finally, as the Midianite princess Tzipporah who goes from captured slave to Moses' wife, Brennyn Lark takes her initially wild and angry side and moves convincingly toward a woman in love with a man of a different race and religion—a woman who, along with Miriam, becomes his key helpmate and a co-leader of the newly formed Hebrew nation on the run.

The one key character who never falters in his one, very narrow dimension is Hotep, the Egyptian high priest. Will Mann is stellar in this self-righteous, bigoted, "alt-right" role. His steadfast position of always being religiously right, even when he is morally wrong, reminds us of others in our current world.

The power and beauty of this story is greatly enhanced by the creative teams assembled by director Schwartz. The colors chosen by Kevin Depinet for the slightly raised and tilted stage bring the Egyptian desert to life, and his use of large blocks of stone that cast members move around constantly to form thrones, columns, and other structures also become the burdens of those same cast when they become Hebrew slaves building pyramids. A large cloud over the desert sky becomes the palette for an entire array of projections created by Shawn Sagady that provide settings, moods, and plagues in colorful, fantastical manners. The costumes of Ann Hould-Ward are meticulously designed in every respect, from those worn by slaves to those adorning the Pharaoh himself. Particularly impressive and stunning is the lighting design of Mike Billings, with entire effects of river division, sand storms, and the passage of the death angel being aided greatly by the majesty of his lighting as well as the imaginative use of silky, cloth strands as designed by Mr. Depinet.

If there is any aspect of this world premiere that feels like there needs to be more work done before the next outing in Denmark, it is the songs. Certainly the hit number "When You Believe" is still the much-anticipated, much-appreciated climax, musically, of this production, just as it is in the film version. And while the other numbers are well enough executed by this talented cast (e.g., a rousing "Act I Finale" and the funny, big in every respect, opening number of act two, "One of Us"), many of the twenty-plus numbers just get interesting when they suddenly fade away after only a short outing, leaving their well-intended messages hanging in the air.

One of the best of the rest that does leave a haunting and memorable impression is "For the Rest of My Life," a number in which Mr. Jeyaratnam as Moses lets God know after the angel of death has slain all Egypt's first-borns, "The crime I do, I do in your name; but I feel guilty all the same." His pained voice sings with many tears in the notes—each note enhanced by eyes whose staring, wide whites speak of the guilt he feels, even in the moment of historic victory of freeing his people.

Underneath the songs and throughout the scenes lies an orchestrated score that often soars in its ability to tell its own story of Pharaohs, their enslaved nation, horrifying heavenly interventions, and miracles of freedom. William Liberatore once again serves as music director of a TheatreWorks musical, ensuring an excellence level that is his well-known signature.

So many aspects of this world premiere The Prince of Egypt are noteworthy, including the assembling of a racially diverse cast that sends a strong message about who really shaped the religions of today—religions with many more common bonds than they are often afforded currently. With some shoring up of the musical numbers, The Prince of Egypt should have a long life as it hopefully continues to travel the globe in the years to come.

The Prince of Egypt continues through November 5, 2017, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available online at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.


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