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London Theatre Reviews

Gary Wilmot and company/ Ph: Matt Crockett

PARTING THE SEA

By JOHN NATHAN

Despite grand ambitions, this show fails to convince on almost every level.

Somewhere in the script for this latest musical by Wicked composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz there is presumably the most ambitious stage direction in theatrical history: “The Red Sea parts.” To the credit of director Scott Schwartz (son of Stephen) and designer Kevin Depinet, it actually does. The auditorium of this cavernous, 1920s Art Deco theatre is flanked by curtains of braids onto which video of towering waves is projected.

This climax to the show has the effect of turning the auditorium into a dry seabed. And the audience? Well, we are much like exposed molluscs sitting in a channel that recedes into the full depth of the stage and beyond. It’s a triumph of perspective.

There are other Biblical miracles represented. These include the burning bush as well as many of the plagues sent by God to free his enslaved people. Yet for disciples of musical theatre, the miracle of a great show feels as distant as the second coming.

If you have not by now twigged that this is the story of Moses and how he led his people out of slavery in Egypt, then this show will at least plug any gaps in your knowledge of Torah, or as Christian’s call it, the Old Testament.

You will learn that Moses (Luke Brady) was adopted by Queen Tuya (Debbie Kurup) when she found the Hebrew baby hidden in reeds on the Nile, who was raised as the younger brother of Prince Ramses (Liam Tamne), the future Pharaoh. Also that the two were hell-raising brothers enjoying such japes as racing their chariots through the market (this show’s first special effect) and even the temple to the Egyptian gods, much to the displeasure of the dynasty’s pompous priest Hotep (Adam Pearce).

Also revealed is that the young brothers spoke to each other like a couple of surfer dudes. “I’ll always have your back,” promises Moses to his older sibling. “But I don’t want to see your front!” he then joshes.

This is one of many lines of wit-free dialogue written by book writer Philip Lazebnik, who also wrote the script for the movie. It presumably exists to convey a brotherly kind of love that is also healthily knockabout and competitive. But where such colloquialisms render animated characters accessible to their young audience, on stage, and with adults pretending to be titans of the Torah, such verbiage comes across as hilariously glib and out of place.

This is indicative of a show that fails to convince on almost every level. The visuals set the scene of ancient Egypt evocatively enough with pyramids and sphinxes, but the slaves schlepping giant stone blocks as Egyptian guards drive them on with cracks of their whips are burdened by blocks that are apparently as heavy as Legos. There is no sign of a movement coach in the list of credits or indeed in the performances.

Schwartz’s score, meanwhile, is the best thing about the show. He has added ten new songs to the original five he wrote for the film, many of which are threaded with a delicate Middle Eastern lilt.

However, only the number "For the Rest of My Life" delivers emotional heft. This is Moses’ mea culpa for the most terrifying of God’s plagues to befall the Egyptians, the killing of the first-born.

Here Brady shows that he is capable of a much darker state of mind than the light emoting demanded by the rest of the production. Christine Allado as the Midianite dancing slave girl Tzipporah is also excellent. Although for someone who plays Moses’ future spouse, she has all the moral authority of a Bond girl.

Comedy actor Gary Wilmot as her wise father and people’s leader summons what gravitas he can. But he might have stepped out of the UK’s touring production of Hair with his colourful desert garb and orange sweatband. At any moment he might burst into a rendition of "The Rhythm of Life."

With so little to commend this show, it is nonetheless no surprise that advance bookings have extended to the end of October. This venue has a record of long-running critically panned shows. I give you the Queen jukebox musical We Will Rock You, which was almost universally disliked by the critics and which ran for years.

The producers must be praying for a similar run. Though if God hears their prayers and sees how his story is represented, he may be moved to more smiting, if he can get a ticket.