'Ten Commandments' musical struggling to find promised land

Posted: Thursday, November 04, 2004

LOS ANGELES Val Kilmer sings his way through plagues and out of slavery in a production that one critic has labeled a ''big, fat biblical boondoggle.''

Kilmer portrays Moses in one of the most improbable musicals of the year: ''The Ten Commandments'' at Hollywood's Kodak Theatre.

Pop musicals inspired by the Bible have packed theaters before but those focused on the star power of Jesus or Joseph's funky clothing, not the epic angst of the Exodus. And despite ''The Ten Commandments'' big-name draw, the show might need a miracle to last much past its planned mid-November run.

The musical opened last month to mostly negative reviews. The producers canceled three shows a week, making it unlikely that this is the next ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' or ''Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.''

Kilmer has won critical acclaim for his on-screen portrayals of drug-addled Jim Morrison, Wyatt Earp's sidekick Doc Holliday, Gotham's caped crusader and even the voice of a cartoon Moses. But in the current production, he is given little to do on stage.

Though he does croon Pharaoh into submission, most of the time Kilmer just watches stoically, draped in striped robes, staff in hand, as seasoned singers get most of the show-stopping numbers. Kilmer strikes dramatic poses head up, arms outstretched and delivers his songs with the help of large screens displaying the lyrics.

It's hardly the Moses of Charlton Heston in the Cecil B. DeMille epic movie. Instead, the producers took their cues from the original French stage musical, ''Les Dix Commandments,'' which downplays the tale's religious aspects to emphasize the relationships between brothers as well as mothers and sons.

This Exodus is a revisionist tale, a feel-good fable showing Moses and Pharaoh who were raised as brothers but parted in conflict reconciling after the Egyptian Army is drowned in the Red Sea, an outcome told neither in the Bible nor the film version.

''The message we are trying to convey is really love, peace and brotherhood,'' Charles Cohen, the show's co-producer, says. ''This is not a religious piece, this is not a Broadway musical. This is a crossover of a pop concert and a theatrical piece.''

The show skips the dramatic presentation of the stone tablets at the peak of Mt. Sinai. Instead, Moses hurls the commandments to the ground after descending to see his people engaged in an orgy of sorts at the foot of the golden calf.

The final song, ''A Prayer for Life,'' during which the cast takes its curtain calls, puts an exclamation point on the nondenominational nature of the theme.

''Here on Earth, we must draw each other near,'' Moses sings. ''Our faith will not divide us, only our fear.''

The show, with tickets ranging from $37.50 to $137.50, is scheduled to run through Nov. 14. The producers are hoping it will be extended into December. Plans to take the show on a national tour are uncertain, as is Kilmer's future availability.

Poor reviews may have hurt attendance so far, but at a recent performance, the crowd that filled about half of the same theater that hosts the Academy Awards responded with a standing ovation.

The crowds didn't seem to mind Kilmer's restrained performance or his lack of vocal range. In fact, the producers did not want to cast Kilmer or any other big star in the title role.

Using the basics of the story slavery, burning bush, plagues, escape as a framework to make a more modern point is actually an ancient tradition, a device employed by rabbis nearly 2,000 years ago who wrote commentary on the Bible.

''People throughout history have taken the Exodus story as their own,'' said Rabbi Naomi Levy, who is teaching a course on the musical at the University of California at Los Angeles. She was referring to black Americans and others who have used Exodus to illustrate their own struggle for freedom.

''In the wake of Sept. 11, in the wake of so much fear, what they ('Ten Commandments' producers) did was to create a story where Arabs and Jews somehow start off as brothers and end up with some sense of brotherhood again,'' Levy said.

The lyrics reflect that central theme, even if they downplay the enmity between the Egyptians and the Hebrews.

Moses, in his first exposure to God at the burning bush, is filled with anxiety rather than a holy zeal to free his people. ''Why should I be different from another?'' Kilmer sings. ''Am I so different from my brother?''

The musical features several rousing pop anthems written by Patrick Leonard, who has worked with Elton John and who wrote the Madonna tune ''Like a Prayer,'' and lyricist Maribeth Derry, who co-wrote the Grammy-nominated song ''I Can Love You Like That.'' Among the highlights are ''Is Anybody Listening,'' sung by Adam Lambert, who plays Joshua, and several numbers featuring Alisan Porter, who plays Miriam.

The producers concede that they took a risk opening such an ambitious show in Los Angeles, instead of previewing it at smaller theaters elsewhere. But they remain hopeful that ''The Ten Commandments'' like Moses will pull through.

''We need more business, of course,'' Cohen said. ''But we are fairly happy.''

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