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‘Prince of Egypt’ needs spiritual direction

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Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam, top left) and his brother Ramses (Jason Gotay, right) race their chariots in TheatreWorks’ premiere of “The Prince of Egypt. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)
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It’s going to take some divine intervention to guide “The Prince of Egypt” out of the developmental desert and on toward promised land of Broadway. The world-premiere musical at TheatreWorks may have some built-in ratsah with those of strong Jewish identity, but for others, it’s an uneven and surprisingly uninspiring meander through a familiar story.

Almost 20 years after its DreamWorks film origin, composer Stephen Schwartz delivers a revised and frankly improved score that unfortunately gets bogged down by a limp book (Philip LaZebnik), questionable production values, uneven performances and thin direction by son Scott Schwartz.

Costumes by Tony-winner Ann Hould-Ward manage to make wandering in the desert chic and Egyptian royalty clunky.

The scenic design by Kevin Depinet creates a striking first impression, but then just sits there, varied only by Selectavision-grade projections and building blocks that get endlessly, sometimes cleverly, rearranged into thrones and barges. But given that they’re supposed to be stone, it would help if they didn’t wobble when touched.

Then, there’s the parting of the curtains, er… Red Sea. Enough said.

Happily, wonderfully diverse and talented strong, graceful dancers in the ensemble beautifully channel the voice of God, become chariots, celebrate desert life “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” and don’t roll their own eyes during an anachronistic bottle dance chorus line (sans bottles) in “One of Us,” a comedic lament of Hebrew oppression.

Among the principals, Jason Gotay as Ramses and Diluckshan Jeyaratnam as Moses are the best singers.

They create a strong brotherly chemistry, but where Gotay skillfully develops his character’s arc from dude to despot to despair, Jeyaratnam, cherubically affable, seems to blink and transform from prince to slave to leader of his people. He does eventually find his center in “For the Rest of My Life,” a strong score addition reflecting on war and plagues, but then he has to go wrestle with the curtains, er… Red Sea.

They both marry strong women. Jamila Sabares-Klemm channels defiant political ambition through a Vanessa Williams filter as queen consort Nefertari. She then achingly collapses into “Heartless” — another excellent new song — after the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which is one of the most powerfully staged sequences in the show.

Brennyn Lark is clearly nobody’s slave as Tzipporah, the proud Midian who must choose between the family she knows and the Moses she loves.

Other cast highlights include the regal Christina Sajous as Tuya, the queen who plucks Moses from the river, and Paul-Jordan Jansen, the wise and strong-voiced leader of the Midian people.

REVIEW
The Prince of Egypt
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 5
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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