Let’s start with the basics. The Prince of Egypt is a 1998 Dreamworks animated musical that everyone mistakenly thinks is from Disney because it follows the basic Disney movie musical format stylistically. With the key difference that Dreamworks made the inexplicable decision to try to compete with Disney’s 90s golden age of fairy tale adaptations by adapting the Book of Exodus. You know, the one with Moses. From the Bible. This baffling gamble paid off in the form of one of the most artistically successful animated films of all time.
Its success established, one might expect the new stage version to be the kind of glossy corporate replica that has characterized Disney musicals of late. But I am delighted to share that The Prince of Egypt is so much weirder than that.
In case you don’t hear this story recited every spring, a recap: as a baby, Moses is set adrift in a basket on the Nile by his enslaved mother to spare him from the systematic slaughter of Hebrew babies by their Egyptian overlords. He is found and raised by the Pharaoh’s family, and has no idea that the slaves that serve in his palace are in fact his people. When he learns this, he flees to the desert, and there receives word from God that he has to return to Egypt to persuade the Pharaoh, now his adoptive brother, to free his people.
The Prince of Egypt‘s big innovation is to imagine a complex and loving relationship between Moses and his brother Rameses. The musical takes this even a step farther than the film, where it’s still the central emotional relationship and driver of the plot, but here setting the brothers as parallel protagonists, rather than hero and foil. Luke Brady and Liam Tamne as Moses and Rameses have an earnest and warm relationship, and Brady in particular turns Moses’s journey from spoiled boy to world-weary man into an impressive physical transformation.
Pointed attention is paid to expanding the show’s female roles, expanding the singing and speaking parts of Moses and Rameses’ mother and Moses’s wife Tzipporah, and adding a wife for Rameses. But stretching out the original’s tight and effective structure opens spaces for questions you don’t have time to wonder about in the film. The underdevelopment of Moses’s birth sister Miriam, for example, stands out when the roles of the other women have been so carefully expanded: this in turn draws attention to the fact that in a story about redemption from slavery, there is essentially nothing given to the two named characters who are actually enslaved.
It’s probably asking too much for the West End adaptation of an animated musical to give a thoughtful or careful depiction of slavery. But it”¦ almost does? Though the script perhaps inevitably pulls its punches in terms of considering any of the ruling Egyptians’ personal culpability for their country’s slavery, the closing contrast of the Egyptian’s grief at the final heaven-sent plague that persuades a stubborn Rameses to free the Hebrews and the Hebrews’ rejoicing (with the best song in the show) at their new freedom has a surprisingly nuanced effect.
Moses and Rameses’ emotional intimacy is startlingly intense. I can’t think of another musical that allows two men at least three separate numbers about their love for one another, and while it honestly begins to border on the homoerotic (they’re not technically brothers!!), I say so not entirely as a joke or as an accusation of queer-bating, but to underscore how surprisingly deep their feelings for one another are allowed to be. The heart of the story is that of Moses and Rameses’ relationship, and if the new script loses some of the film’s precision and subtlety, it gains something else in embracing the idea that the show is fundamentally a kind of love story.
This is all embedded in, and slightly undermined by, a design and staging aesthetic that would always rather be tacky than risk being boring. The royal characters wear a vibrant mix of classic Egyptian looks in British military-inflected shapes that lift the world into a kind of mythic, fairytale space that is far better than striving for accuracy, but is also occasionally deeply weird, and much more effectively realised on the central characters than the ensemble.
After an opening that looks like a technicolor Les Miz, the show’s major stylistic reference point in terms of staging is sort of a lo-fi The Lion King, with dancing ensemble members serving as”¦ basically everything: the Nile, a house, the walls, the burning bush. This willful weirdness is both, well, weird and kind of delightful. Surely there’s a better way to make a burning bush, with all the wonders of design technology available to us, than a pile of people in taffeta? But then again, why the hell not?
This works much better when the company literally form the walls of Egypt, simultaneously mirroring the hieroglyphics and statues of Pharaohs that are projected around the space and literalising the idea that this is a country built on the backs of slaves. A sequence when these human walls spring to life as Moses reads the history of the slaughter of the Hebrews written on them is particularly thrilling.
But the staging just never quite fits together, which makes the shakier parts of the script feel perhaps weaker than they really are. The refusal to deploy real theatrical magic””not necessarily in the form of expensive effects, but something besides projections and people dancing like a river””starts to feel strangely stubborn. Though many individual things are creative, there’s not a sense of overall vision and imagination. The clunky direction and frequently bizarre aesthetics feel like they’re standing in the way of the show being actually quite good. But the daffy design and staging choices so clichÃ© they sometimes border on parody do provide their own kind of borderline-camp joy.
The original film is good enough to have been turned into a stage musical that was truly excellent, and that hasn’t happened. But nor has the creative team turned out something sanded smooth and determined to stray as little as possible from a proven success. For my part, I’m happy to watch something that’s an earnest, delightful mess.
The Prince of Egypt is on at Dominion Theatre. For more info, visit The Prince of Egypt website.