The nineties brought us animated films that were heavily influenced by the Broadway community. Many great actors, composers, writers, and directors lent their talent to creating animated musicals for the silver screen, which are now being translated to the stage. While many of these movies were produced by the Walt Disney Company, several other classics like Anastasia are making their way to Broadway as well, including Dreamwork’s’ masterpiece The Prince of Egypt. After several years in development, I got to witness this story of biblical proportions make its world premiere at TheatreWorks at Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California.
The Prince of Egypt is an adaptation from the Book of Exodus, following the life of the prophet Moses who, after receiving a prophecy from God, leads his people out of Egypt. The animated film told this story through the coming of age of two brothers, Ramses and Moses, each following separate paths toward their destined greatness and power. Several changes were made for the stage that built upon the original story, including the addition of Ramses’ wife, who was not featured in the animated film, and combining the dual high priests into a singular character, who is more cynical and plays a larger role in the tension with Pharaoh. However, the further exploration into the relationship between the two brothers is this musical’s greatest improvement.
The love and mutual respect Ramses and Moses have for one another gives deeper meaning to the decisions they make as Pharaoh and Prophet respectively, and adds stronger family ties that parallel the connection these characters have towards faith and religion. Ramses has the biggest growth throughout the show, starting out as a naïve boy living in his brother’s shadow. He grows into a ruler who seeks to build upon his empire, by taking responsibility for his actions while recognizing the dark history of rulers before him. By creating new characters and adding new material for the characters fans of the film already love, The Prince of Egypt gains more heart at its core, complimenting the more serious and darker themes highlighted in the animated feature.
What makes The Prince of Egypt stand out is the incredible score by Stephen Schwartz, who has created incredible Broadway shows including Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked. Many of the songs Schwartz wrote from the original film are present in the stage adaption, like “Deliver Us” and “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” along with new music that gives us more insight into the character’s struggle. My favorite addition was “For the Rest of My Life,” sung by Ramses’ wife Nefertari after the plague takes her son and shows a more compassionate side to her character we hadn’t seen yet. If nothing else, the score proves that Stephen Schwartz not only knows how to write a great musical, but can also improve greatly upon what’s already considered a masterpiece of a film.
Moses, played by Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, had an interesting arc from free-spirited boy to a man who is the leader of his people. Diluckshan also has an amazing voice that is fit for Schwartz’s challenging score. Jason Gotay played Ramses, probably one of his best roles to date. He played well off Diluckshan’s Moses, and put a lot of thought into Ramses’ progression into a Pharaoh that could rule from his own conscious. Rounding out the cast were Brennyn Lark, who brought a playfulness and confidence to the slave girl Tzipporah, and Christina Sajous as Queen Tuya, visually stunning and commanded the stage as the Queen of Egypt.
I will say that this production wasn’t perfect. While I enjoyed the choreography and movement incorporated in this musical, I was missing the production value that one would expect from an epic like The Prince of Egypt. The fire in the burning bush, the sand blowing in the desert during Moses’ exile, and the final plague of white light that took the first born. While I think there were a lot of moments like these missed in this production, I believe that these elements will come further into play in future productions.
Beyond that, what I most appreciated was the authenticity to the movie, and the culture upon which this story is based in, historically and biblically. There were so many lines and moments from the movie that appeared in this stage adaptation, that fulfilled my childhood anticipation of seeing this musical. From the dancing during “Through Heaven’s Eyes” and “One of Us,” to the Hebrew sung and spoken throughout the musical, the creators of this show respected both the Jewish and Egyptian roots of this story, pulling from the animated film and The Book of Exodus. When Yocheved chanted in Hebrew during the opening of Act I, it sent shivers down my spine of how powerful it was.
While there are many critics of the movie and the creative liberty they took regarding the Book of Exodus, I truly appreciated how much this show took that conversation in consideration. They represented religion in a way that was not too overwhelming for the audience, but kept the topic present and balanced throughout the plot. It’s a hard task to take on and it’s one of the major achievements The Prince of Egypt succeeded in.
While this musical has a lot of development ahead, the foundation upon which The Prince of Egypt sits is present and allows this story to shine. If you are in California and fell in love with this story growing up as much as I did, please deliver yourself to the promise land. Go see The Prince of Egypt at Theatreworks in Silicon Valley now through November 5. You will not be disappointed.
Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8.
Photo: Kevin Berne