Like film, I have a fondness for musicals doomed to forever be ridiculed for completely falling on their proverbial face. My personal collection of show recordings includes a downright bizarre song-and-dance bio of Princess Diana, and despite mucho peer pressure I have outright refused to ditch my copy of From Justin to Kelly for its ability to consistently make my jaw drop in horror. However, there’s a key difference between a musical that attains salvation through ineptitude and one that tries my patience, and I believe I’ve found the mother of all these trials. The Ten Commandments: The Musical is without a doubt an exercise, one I’ll gladly return to the rental store from whence it came.
The people behind this production want you to know Val Kilmer is the star, as evidenced by his gigantic, beefy face staring out at you from the DVD. It’s yet another sad moment in musical theatre’s long history of appealing to the masses, past attempts including Rosie O’Donnell in Fiddler on the Roof and John Stamos in, of all shows, Cabaret. More often than not a recognizable name on the marquee work out in terms of ticket sales, but critical reaction is tepid at best. How does Kilmer fare? Well, let’s just say his performance lands somewhere between embarrassing and plain forgettable, much like the show as a whole.
Everything about the production filmed for this DVD reeks of slapdash efforts and halfhearted concepts, and this could be connected to the fact that it was performed in the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Malaise and mediocrity in Hollywood? What an idea! But to be sure, this is one turkey that needed to be cooked a bit more if it was ever to satisfy the appetite. The creators made sure to throw in all of the crucial elements of the Moses story, including his trip downriver, a nice chat with the burning bush and hike up Mt. Sinai, but they come off more like entries on a checklist than portions of a fleshed-out adaptation. Sad-faced Jews? Check. Mean ol’ Pharaoh? Yep.
Problems are visible from the first few moments, as melodramatic actors enact horribly clunky stage combat in a battle between desperate Hebrew slaves and their Egyptian masters. No one actually seems all that worried, however, and never mind the fact that not one Hebrew is elderly or even a bit out of shape. The men are cut and evenly tanned, and the women sport nice hairdos and low-cut tops. This tendency of costumes to be totally inappropriate (not to mention overly bright and laughably store bought in appearance) continues throughout the two hour running time, all thanks to the brilliant mind of Max Azria. I mean, for the love of God, some of the men are wearing pajama pants! And the ladies practically have tube tops in one scene! Sheesh.
But let’s get back to Val Kilmer, and, on a broader note, the music of this little show in general. The main query you might have is, of course, can Kilmer sing? Well, no, he cannot, at least not when he’s onstage dressed in a Moses muumuu. His voice is husky and wavers randomly, and by the second act it’s almost as if he might bottom out completely. Perhaps this is why the majority of the songs are handled by the ensemble, allowing the “star” to literally stand in place, smile, and stare into space for minutes on end. It makes a viewer cringe, especially when you consider his great performance in the decidedly different Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. To make matters worse, he doesn’t exactly fit into his costumes, leading me to think his agent should implement a strict bagel-only diet in the near future.
So with Kilmer on the back burner singing-wise, how does everyone else manage in bearing the weight of these terrible tunes? And they are indeed terrible, with lyrics so trite it would make a Hallmark card look downright penetrating (example: You can put a rock on my heart, but you can’t build a prison around my mind). Well, I’m not going to say the singing itself is bad, since these performers are clearly well trained. Unfortunately not one person comes away sounding unique in any way. The music is written to be blasted to the back row of the balcony in that irritating style made famous by the contestants of American Idol. Frankly I couldn’t tell any of the female characters apart by voice alone, since they all fell into the trap of long, sustained yells and Aguilera-ish tremors. The men fare no better, especially one who freaked me out by singing so loudly it made his tongue stick out by at least an inch.
But the staff behind Commandments wasn’t content to bring their CA audiences boring performances and music, so they threw in the mother load of cherries to top off their sundae: CGI. Oh yes, all throughout the show a digital video screen at the back of the performance space displays what could best be compared to computer screensavers from the glory days of 1993. Why look, a river and some palm trees! A cavalcade of neon green frogs hopping…around…awkwardly. Hoo boy. There are even effects added in post-production to be a part of on the on stage action, such as a Pharaoh who glows like a walking Night-Lite and mystical cartoon fireflies. I was astounded at how awful all of this appeared on screen. Who thought this was a good idea? It only makes the show seem all the more childish in conception.
Religious musicals are not new by any means. Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell are both immensely popular, mainly because they tell a popular story that doesn’t require a lot of expensive effects or involve physically epic plot points. The tale of Moses involves parting seas, multiple catastrophic plagues, and much, much more, so to think it could be told on stage is probably a fallacy. If you really need to see Moses sing, rent The Prince of Egypt instead. It’s an extremely well-animated musical that treats the material with respect, and, oddly enough, stars Val Kilmer in the title role. Go figure, right?