Oh, my god! Abandonment, lies, deceit, treachery, corruptive power, plagues — yes, the story of Moses overflows with the stuff of high drama, but there’s precious little of it to be seen in the multi-million dollar production of The Ten Commandments that’s now on stage at the cavernous Kodak Theatre. This sung-thru pop musical, which offers the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story of Moses, his freeing of the slaves, and his receiving of the famous stone tablets, is a failure of nearly biblical proportions. It pays more attention to showy special effects, splashy costumes, gigantic sets, and ridiculous choreography than it does to the heart of the story.
Apparently, the producers believe the tale itself is so well-known that there is no need for such trivialities as character identification, relationships, exposition, or dramatic tension. So they have done away with such nonsense, figuring that audiences will remember enough of the film versions or their Sunday School teachings to immediately know who someone like Zipporah (Nita Whitaker) is. (For the record, she’s Moses’ wife — but I had to look her up in Who’s Who in the Bible. God forbid that her name should be mentioned once in a three-hour show or that “wife of Moses” should be added after her name in the program!)
Clearly, the effort here is to reach out to the film-and-TV-oriented youth market. Movie star Val Kilmer, who makes a wimpy Moses and looks and acts more like he should be playing Jesus, is a draw. So are the sexy slaves in skimpy (and very clean) rags, jumping and gyrating to often embarrassing dance routines by MTV choreographer Travis Payne. Then there are the special effects. Really, who wouldn’t like a good burning bush and such other stage pyrotechnics as swarms of CGI locusts? (Robert Rang is credited with “special visual effects.”) It’s a safe bet that audiences are curious to discover how this production parts the Red Sea (unimpressively, with hanging sheets of Plexiglas and plastic) and how Moses receives the famed tablets (even less impressively, he walks on stage with them).
God bless Kevin Earley (Ramses), he of magnificent voice and solid acting ability, who not only holds his own in this mess but makes a gallant effort to pull the practically lifeless Kilmer along with him. This performer is best showcased in “The Glory of Ra,” in which Ramses — who was raised with Moses as his brother — reveals his hunger for power. Earley’s soaring voice captivates and helps us to ignore the banality of the song. In fact, most of the score (music by Patrick Leonard, lyrics by Maribeth Derry) is amazingly colorless and repetitive. Only a few numbers, including “The Horns of Jericho,” the orgiastic “Land of Milk and Honey,” and the claptrap closer, “A Prayer for Life,” have any flavor to them. However, the huge cast sounds marvelous, so even when you’re listening to an endless refrain of “Moses, Moses, Moses..”. or such lines as “He’s gotta die,” at least you’ve got the distraction of good voices.
Set designer Giantito Burchiellaro has filled the stage with massive sliding panels and unit pieces, made use of floor traps, and placed video screens left, right, and upstage. (These screens display images of Egypt as it appears now, not 3,300 years ago). Producer/costume designer Max Azria seems to have dressed the female royalty in clingy, satin evening dresses from his own collection and merely added a touch of Egyptian adornment.
The show has occasional moments that work, brief flashes of what might have been, which only add to a theatergoer’s frustration. All that time, money, and effort spent, yet there is no pay-off! The budget of The Ten Commandments could have funded a dozen or more smaller stage shows with high quality performers and production values plus the ability to actually tell a story and move an audience to think, to feel. With that in mind, I hereby offer my own Ten Commandments for Producing a Biblical Tuner, in case these people ever attempt another one:
- Thou shalt identify thy characters and clearly establish their relationships to one another.
- Thou shalt provide characters not of the stick-figure variety, imbuing them with emotional depth and dimension.
- Thou shalt provide enough exposition to make proper transitions and connections between scenes, and to set up dramatic situations.
- Thou shalt clearly identify what is at stake and provide an increasing amount of dramatic tension to move the story along.
- Thou shalt not commit idolatry of special effects at the expense of storytelling.
- Thou shalt honor thy audiences and their varying beliefs, rather than assume that every person knows or remembers the story being told and can therefore fill in the blanks.
- Thou shalt not replace character- and story-appropriate choreography with dance routines that call to mind a halftime show.
- Thou shalt provide a score of musical and lyrical distinction and reasonable variety.
- Thou shalt not kill an audience’s bank account with inflated ticket prices designed to make back the money spent on an overproduced show.
- Thou shalt learn from thy previous mistakes.