Ads and billboards touting the U.S. premiere of this biblical extravaganza proudly proclaim, “Val Kilmer is Moses!” Well, uh, not exactly. In this sung-through musical, Kilmer’s passive Moses appears to be following the commandment “Thou shalt not express passion,” since he responds with somnambulistic detachment to every situation, even underplaying in the face of killer plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.
Launched in Paris as “Les Dix Commandments” and rewritten for American consumption, the elaborate $12 million show, co-produced by celebrated costume designer Max Azria, surrounds its passive hero with eye candy. Unfortunately, Maribeth Derry’s lackluster lyrics often yank us from 3,300 years ago to the present with clunky modern lines that offer awkwardly rhymed cliches in place of plot development or character.
Patrick Leonard (who co-wrote Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and collaborated with Elton John and Fleetwood Mac) occasionally offers a listenable tune (“The Horns of Jericho”), although the numbers rarely rise to any height of theatrical excitement and lean too heavily on ballads.
“If I Can Let You Go” kicks the story off quickly when Moses is rescued and adopted by Queen Bithia (Luba Mason) after his mother, Yokebed (Michelle Pereira), reluctantly surrenders him to save his life. A love-hate relationship later ensues with brother Ramses (Kevin Earley), and before long, they’re competing for seductive, scheming Nefertari (Lauren Kennedy).
The woman who finally nabs mellow Moses is Zipporah (Nita Whitaker), yet the bond between them never feels real.
Earley, as ruthless Ramses, goes a long way toward compensating for the fact that Kilmer’s colorless vocals don’t soar. (Even with the aid of two teleprompters, Kilmer still made noticeable slips.)
Fresh from a Broadway stint in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Earley, a magnificent singer, confronts Kilmer with smoldering rage and competitiveness (even if such lines to Moses as “you’re acting kinda strange” destroy any illusion of reality). It’s an unequal contest, since Earley acts up a storm and Kilmer gives him nothing to play against.
Earley’s solo “Glory of Ra” spells out his lust for power, and he projects as much blazing heat as the vividly staged burning bush (designed by Robert W. Rang) when defying Big M and refusing to free his slaves.
Second-act opener “Light of a New Day” features a superb vocal by Alisan Porter; Adam Lambert, as Joshua, does a knockout version of “Is Anybody Listening?,” the show’s bid for a top-40 hit. Director Robert Iscove has chosen a group of brilliant singers, and they hit notes expansive enough to fill the enormous Kodak stage. In general, the numbers would land even more strongly if musical director Greg Chun capped them with explosive climaxes, rather than letting them trail off tamely and dissipate.
Travis Payne’s choreography keeps the cast hopping, but no one is featured powerfully enough to make an individual impression. Some of the moves, particularly during the orgy sequence, are strikingly inventive; others feel loosely conceived and disorganized.
Giantito Burchiellaro’s impressive screens, to the left, right and back of the stage, offer historical landscapes and statues of the gods of ancient Egypt, and stone temples, thrones and huge columns reinforce these visuals. However, projections meant to depict Moses’ desert exile are less successful.
Few of the show’s effects deliver on their promise of excitement. After Moses announces, “I will stretch forth my hand and tell the sea to part,” the sight of the Red Sea is a letdown. Inexplicably, the water — composed of plastic walls made to look like ice — looks like a setting for the Titanic instead of a biblical backdrop.
The Golden Calf strikes a more convincing note, and Iscove’s staging of the plagues is the production’s peak. As head of BCBG, Azria saw to it that the costumes, particularly for Egyptian hierarchy, are lush and attractive, though he could do more to make Moses stand out.
One story choice is massively misguided: the decision to let a young boy (Graham Phillips) sing a solo revealing the contents of the newly discovered commandments. It’s a sweet interlude, but hey, Chuck Heston wouldn’t have handed that historical moment to a child or anyone else. It would increase Moses’ stature immensely and leave a crucial impression of heroism if Kilmer personally passed along these trailblazing tips to his followers.