It turns out the parting of the Red Sea is indeed a sight to behold. For the climax to the latest mammoth musical by Wicked composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz —the stage version of the 1998 DreamWorks animated movie telling the Exodus story — the audience is right in a sea’s miraculously dry channel and flanked by towering waves, though without using a single drop of water.
The moment is worth waiting for, though not necessarily worth paying for. Because despite having arguably the most spectacular story in the Torah as source material, Schwartz and book-writer (no, not the book of Exodus) Philip Lazebnik have delivered a show that is almost entirely free of drama.
The focus is on the sibling relationship between prince Ramses (Liam Tamne) and Moses (Luke Brady), the Hebrew baby found in the reeds of the Nile who is destined to deliver his people from slavery. (There are, by the way, no “Jews” in this version of the Passover story. Just “Hebrews”.)
The relationship is more bromance than brotherly, and not so much bonded by camaraderie as camp. The show’s first spectacle sees the joshing hell-raisers race their chariots through a market and a temple to the Egyptian gods. The two have the air of frat boys and so does their dialogue.
If they called each other dude it would not sound out of place. And it is this utterly colloquial discourse that bleeds Scott (son of Stephen) Schwartz’s production of the sense that anything important is going on, let alone biblical.
Dialogue that allows animated characters to feel accessible feels fatally trite out of the mouths of real people pretending to be giants of the Torah. But it is not just the way people speak that is problematic here. Although much thought has gone into the realism of the sets (design Kevin Depinet) the people are less convincing than objects. Giant stone slabs are shlepped by slaves as if they were the weight of Lego. And when a line of silhouetted Jews — sorry, Hebrews — are led by Moses through the desert, the figures have the breezy gait of shoppers in a mall.
I checked the credits for a movement director but couldn’t see one.
The evening is an exercise in disbelief suspension, right down to the entrance of Moses’s future and very alluring wife Tzipporah (go Moses!) an enslaved dancer. Played by the commanding Christine Allado her entrance is in a cage with bars so wide she is in danger of falling out.
Sean Cheesman’s choreography finds multiple uses for his chorus whose bodies evoke everything from sand, sea, wind and the burning bush, by which time Ramses is Pharaoh and ignoring Moses’s pleas to let his people go.
Schwartz’s efficient rather than inspired score is infused with a Middle Eastern lilt and occasionally hebraic intonation. Though the number Simcha — sung with the (actually fake) news that Moses and his people are to be freed — might easily end up a favourite at Jewish weddings. Perhaps not so the choreography which requires the cast to augment their period biblical garb with knee pads.
The plagues are well represented — sans frogs. The Nile turns blood red, boils appear on Hotep the priest’s face in the form of epic acne and the worst plague, the death of the first born, delivers the only moment of genuine emotional heft for which Brady’s Moses sings his regret with touching grief.
Despite this, God might be be moved to yet more smiting — of the cast — were he to get a ticket. (Advance sales have led to the booking period being extended to the end of October). But even the Almighty might enjoy the Red Sea moment for old time’s sake.