“With its creative and production heft, this will undoubtably be around a long time”
Born in ancient Egypt and delivered via an unconventional route, this new work from the creators of Wicked (Dreamwork Theatricals) arrives kicking and ululating in the mighty palace of London’s Dominion Theatre. Having first been an animated feature film, this is the story of Moses told with a lot less religion and a lot more bromance, tracking the relationship between young Ramses and his foundling sibling as they grow close, then apart, then further apart.
A thrillingly executed chariot race kicks off an evening of peerless creative arts, from choreography to video projections, from wardrobe to set design. Then, as Ramses (Liam Tamne) steps up to fill the Pharaonic boots of his father Seti (Joe Dixon), Moses heads the other way down the pecking order, by falling for an enslaved dancer, Tzipporah (Christine Allado). Exile ensues as he pursues her into the embrace of the desert-based Midianites, a blissful commune lead by the genial Jethro (Gary Wilmot) who teach him how to dance in 5/4 time. After meeting up with his previously lost family, in particular sister Miriam (Alexia Khadime), Moses realises his identity and takes up the cause of those Hebrew slaves still slogging themselves to death on Ramses’ pyramids.
Enslaved to an unwieldy source, the script by Philip LaZebnik suffers under the strain, with wars and plagues, exile and deliverance having to be explained through the eyes of two brothers in the few gaps between 25 musical numbers. With so much work to do in a small space of time, some lines edge beyond parody. “Moses!! I haven’t seen you in a long time” says Rameses as if spotting a mate in McDonald’s when Moses returns from exile to let his people go. “How did you let the people go?” complains High Priest Hotep (Adam Pearce) as if the multitude escaping was equivalent to losing your Oyster card. However, it does the job of keeping the action and effects speeding along, especially in the second half with plagues being visited with exhilarating brevity. Hotep is no sooner popping open his vestal top to reveal boils than meteors are descending on the backdrop. But this is all, as intended, creating a thundering, crowd-pleasing display, that bears little analysis (should we really applaud a plague?) but gives excellent opportunity for some impressive visuals. The design team in particular (Kevin Depinet’s set, Mike Billings’ lighting, Jon Driscoll’s projections and Chris Fisher’s illusions) create spectacular landscapes, pyramid interiors and Red Sea partings.
Great effort too has gone into Stephen Schwarz’ reworking of his own score. Best known for Wicked and Godspell, here his music and lyrics wrestle absorbingly with the constraints of Egyptian-sounding cadences (courtesy of Hollywood’s biblical blockbusters) and lilting Yiddish melodies, while blending in some old school rock opera and, inevitably, the saccharine sound of Disney Musicals. The cast is universally highly competent as you might expect, the dancers all limb-perfect in service of Sean Cheesman’s superb choreography. With the two leads perhaps lacking enough contrast, only Alexia Khadime truly soars vocally, but Christine Allado and Gary Wilmot join her in managing to project a third dimension to their originally two-dimensional characters. With its creative and production heft, this will undoubtably be around a long time, but doesn’t have the heart of a Lion King.
“Mehmet Ergen directs the show with a freshness and inventiveness that allows the versatile and talented cast to sparkle”
What a treat this is. Turning a successful film into a stage musical isn’t an easy task, but this production by Selladoor manages it wonderfully. The story is true to the original and if you are wondering how the small Arcola stage can accommodate a VW van, a motel, a hospital and a Beauty Pageant, go and see it purely for the ingenuity of David Woodhead’s design.
This is one of those evenings at the theatre that has the audience buzzing and leaving the theatre with huge smiles. Some will also have a tune in their head, as there are some truly memorable songs (William Finn) in the show. The cast are excellent; this is a real ensemble piece where everyone gets a chance to shine, even those with smaller roles, such as Imelda Warren-Green who personified the old adage that there is no such thing as a small part with hilarious performances as Linda and Miss California.
For those not familiar with the film (written by Michael Arndt), the story is about the Hoover family; a rather dysfunctional tribe, who drive from New Mexico to California so that their daughter Olive can enter a children’s beauty pageant. Olive, played this evening by Sophie Hartley Booth was the heart and soul of the show. She was hilarious, sweet and utterly captivating. Her performance in the talent competition brought the house down. Three other children, Ellicia Simondwood, Yvie Bent and Elodie Salmon played the Mean Girls, both the voices in Olive’s head that tell her she isn’t good enough and the other competitors in the beauty pageant. And delightfully mean they were.
The rest of the family each have their problems. Paul Keating played Frank, the gay uncle who has unsuccessfully tried to kill himself, with a gentle sureness of hand. Gary Wilmot’s scandalous grandpa is living on the sofa. He loves to shock, yet has real warmth and Wilmot brought a gorgeous tongue in cheek style to the role. Sev Keoshgerian managed to be very funny, characterful and convincing as Dwayne, Olive’s brother, even during the majority of the show when he doesn’t say a word. The parents, Richard and Sheryl, played by Gabriel Vick and Laura Pitt-Pulford are broke and struggling. Gabriel is optimistic about his ‘ten point plan for success,’ and expecting a book deal that never comes, but despite all the setbacks and obstacles, the family are determined to get Olive to the pageant. Pitt-Pulford sang ‘Something Better Better Happen’ with such genuine emotion that it brought a tear to the eye, and Vick’s ‘What You Left Behind’ was powerful and touching. They felt like a real family, each individually falling apart but coming together in the face of their difficulties; pushing the van to get it started, determined to finish the journey.
The two other cast members are Ian Carlyle and Matthew McDonald, who both take on a couple of contrasting roles. Carlyle is outrageously loud as the wonderfully dreadful pageant host, and equally good as the man who stole Frank’s lover. McDonald also convinces, both as the ex-lover and as the long suffering technical guy at the pageant.
Mehmet Ergen directs the show with a freshness and inventiveness that allows the versatile and talented cast to sparkle. There is a stunning live band above the stage (Musical Director Arlene McNaught) that perform their hearts out for every number. The perfect package is completed with great sound (Olly Steel) and lighting (Richard Williamson) throughout and some excellent choreography (Anthony Whiteman).
If Little Miss Sunshine gets a West End transfer, and it deserves to get one, I will be happy to say that I saw it in this smaller, more intimate space. Do go, if you can. The whole thing is a joy.