German producer Franz Abraham attempts nothing less than a redefinition of large-scale 21st-century live entertainment with “Ben Hur Live,” a mega-spectacle featuring a cast and crew of 400, some 100 animals, and re-enactments of the 1959 film’s famed chariot race and sea battle.
Abraham claims the production constitutes a wholly new form called “monutainment,” mixing ancient tragedy, musical theater and blockbuster. But a contemporary theatrical vision is almost wholly lacking from the enterprise, resulting in a magnificent failure. An $8 million budget also seems a relatively modest price tag to buy the kind of entertainment revolution for which Abraham is aiming.
Abraham made his name in central Europe in the mid 1990s with large-scale open-air stagings of Orff’s “Carmina Burana” and a pyrotechnical version of Verdi’s “Aida.” “Ben Hur Live” is his attempt to break into the Anglo-American market; show tours around Europe through mid-2010 and is hoping to add American and Australian dates.
With the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Sebastian Thrun), a privileged Jew living at the time of Christ whose fortunes rise and fall in epic terms when he’s betrayed by his childhood friend, the Roman Messala (Michael Knese), the production team has a sturdy, road-tested narrative framework. But the key problem lies in the “live” aspect: the show tries to realize too much ambitious stage business through literal means, but sensibilities honed on virtual media will be miles ahead of the effects attempted. In addition, adherence to contemporary health and safety regulations means nothing really risky can be at stake.
The action primarily consists of huge set-piece scenes delivering key plot points — Judah and Messala riding horses together as young men; a festive day in Jerusalem which sees Judah’s fortunes turn when he is wrongly accused of trying to kill a Roman leader; Judah’s near-death encounter with Jesus (Andreas Nagy) in Nazareth, and so forth. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and — in an unusual set of moves presumably prompted by the fact that prod is touring internationally — is spoken in the characters’ original languages, Latin and Aramaic, with live narration provided in the local language.
In London, the narration is performed by the show’s composer, Stewart Copeland (founder of The Police), who — in an ill-judged, anachronistic move — is often visible onstage, wandering around the action in contemporary street clothes speaking into a hand-held mic (at other times the narration is delivered as a disembodied voiceover). Copeland’s score accompanies virtually every moment of the action, and feels like a stylistic homage to sweeping movie music of yore, but with a Middle Eastern flavour.
The featured performers avail themselves very well of the huge challenge of communicating strong emotion in obscure languages before a massive arena, in addition to doing extensive fight work, dancing and riding horses. But there’s a literalism to the staging that creates a barrier to audience engagement. Abraham and director Philip William McKinley have made a clear choice to opt away from any contemporary forms of mediation (screens, for example) and from any attempt at theatrical metaphor.
While there is an initial novelty and interest to the number of people onstage, the crowd scenes actually end up feeling small compared to the scale auds have become used to in film and television. The horses in the chariot race scene are gorgeous, and the sight of them in full gallop brings a certain thrill. But the production simply cannot deliver the high-stakes, life-and-death drama that came through in William Wyler’s film. When Messala falls out of his chariot car and is dragged for a half-turn around the arena, the choreography and emphasis on animal and performer safety are (as they need to be) apparent. A welcome deviation from realism comes in the sea battle scene: the galleys are huge wood skeletons on wheels, which the slaves push rather than row; and the pirates careen around in dune buggies setting off fireworks.
The need to keep the narrative straightforward means subplots about Judah’s family and his interactions with Jesus are cut back significantly. This works well until the final scene: the show initially seems to end with Jesus curing Judah’s mother (Mariana Krauser) and sister (Nina Adrienne Wilden) of leprosy, to much rejoicing; but a final moment spotlights Jesus on the cross — making the curtain call feel in rather poor taste.
Newer forms of storytelling and more moves away from a literal delivery of film action may have helped better engage contemporary adult sensibilities. As it is, the ideal audience for this show looks to be young children, who will lap up its simple storytelling and big set pieces. Re-angling the marketing accordingly may aid biz as the production hits the road.