Perhaps reverence is best left at the altar. Composer Alan Menken, whose sweet pop ballads and sprightly upbeat tunes virtually resurrected the Disney animated film in the late 1980s, takes on God as a collaborator in “King David,” and the intimidation factor shows. Performed in a limited-run concert version to inaugurate the Walt Disney Co.’s New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway, “King David” showcases Menken’s first-rate abilities as a pop craftsman, featuring any number of songs that could stand on their own. Indeed, they’d be better off: Unrelentingly serious-minded and devoid of the wit and cheekiness that Menken (who, after all, had his breakthrough with “Little Shop of Horrors”) brought to previous projects, “King David,” though certainly not without its pleasures, eventually grows as wearying as a Biblical list of “begats.”
With The Word interpreted yet again by lyricist Tim Rice (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”), “King David” tells the story of Israel’s shepherd king with an epic, and episodic, sweep that, at 2 hours and 45 minutes, is more than a little too epic. Short on dramatic thrust or a compelling central storyline, “King David” will need streamlining and plot enhancement if its creators take it to the next step of a full-scale musical production.
But if viewed as a workshop, the nine-performance “oratorio” is as elaborate and loving a production as Disney’s estimable forces can muster. So nicely sung that one is almost willing to forgive the score’s repetitiousness, this concert staging, despite considerable problems with pace, includes enough musical highlights to warrant further development. If Menken and Rice can resist the impulse to treat the work as sacred, “King David” could have a future.
Staged by Mike Ockrent in the hybrid concert-theatrical style of the Encore! series that produced the current Broadway revival of “Chicago,” “King David” has its actors (in William Ivey Long’s modified period costumes — tunics, linen pants, sandals) interact with one another, making full use of the stage and a stepped platform. Mostly sung-through, the story, as narrated by David’s general, Joab (Stephen Bogardus), recounts the life of the shepherd-poet who would become the great king of Israel. Joab actually begins before the beginning — trimming opportunity — with the tale of the prophet Samuel (Peter Samuel) and Israel’s first king, Saul (Martin Vidnovic), who initially disagree over the choice of David (Marcus Lovett) as successor.
Saul comes around, virtually adopting David as his own son when the young shepherd fells the giant Philistine warrior Goliath with a sling. With Goliath played by very large actor Bill Nolte, with wild hair and half-wit expression, the production veers a bit too close to Biblical kitsch here, not least due to the lumbering, chant-heavy number “Goliath of Gath,” which could easily come from an old “Hercules” movie.
From there, the score charts David’s ascendancy, his marriage to Michal (Judy Kuhn), his rivalry with Saul, friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan (Roger Bart), his affair with Bathsheba (Alice Ripley), and the rebellion and death of his beloved son Absalom (Anthony Galde). The story ends as the dying, aged David anoints Solomon (Daniel James Hodd), son of Bathsheba, his successor.
That’s a lot of story to pack into a musical, even one running nearly three hours. Few of the characters or episodes are given much development, with the tale of Bathsheba, among the better- known of the episodes, given especially short shrift.
The much-needed paring down would also put the score’s best songs in a better light. Menken’s range here is not exactly vast — his ballads, though pleasant, are in the mold of his Disney tunes — and the score too soon settles into sameness. Some highlights break through: the pop gospel of “Saul Has Slain His Thousands,” the love ballad “Sheer Perfection,” the anthemic “This New Jerusalem,” even the cool jazz sounds (however incongruous) of “Warm Spring Night.” Those songs are the wheat among too much chaff.
Rice’s lyrics have their share of detritus as well, but they generally take a more straightforward approach than is associated with the lyricist. The awkward flourishes of Rice’s earlier work are kept to a minimum, although he’s still capable of the odd anachronistic groaner — in a song describing the young David, Rice rhymes “devout” with “well worth checking out.” While few will miss the lyricist’s over-ripe excesses, the irreverence that he brought to “Dreamcoat,” “Superstar” and even “Evita” would do much to lighten the ponderousness of “King David.”
Despite Douglas Besterman’s overpowering orchestrations, the cast sings beautifully and acts (to the extent the production is acted) well enough. Lovett is strong-voiced and sympathetic in the taxing title role, and Bogardus adds personality to the underwritten character of the cynical narrator. Vidnovic and Samuel are fine as the first king and prophet, respectively, and Bart adds poignancy as David’s doomed, loyal friend. Only Galde, as Absalom, overdoes, giving the rebellious son a few too many angry rock star poses.
As for the women, both Kuhn (the standout with ballads “Sheer Perfection” and “Never Again”) and Ripley have terrific voices, though their characterizations seem a bit modern for the story. Ripley (as Bathsheba) especially comes off more like a modern-day beauty queen than the Bible’s famously tainted woman.
Tech credits were virtually flawless, from David Agress’ tasteful lighting to Jonathan Deans’ sound design (even amplified, the voices sound wonderfully natural). Disney’s $34 million renovation of the New Amsterdam Theater is an unqualified success. “King David” has some catching up to do.