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THEATER REVIEW

Fire, plague and much wandering

'Commandments,' with synthesizers and leggy slaves, avoids disaster rank with a bit of polish.

September 29, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

"I am not eloquent," Moses says in the Bible. "I am slow of speech. I am slow of tongue." He doesn't say "I am slow of song," but we can assume as much.

In that, if not much else, "The Ten Commandments," the new pop music spectacular, or at least spectacle, at the Kodak Theatre pretty much gets it right. Val Kilmer, in case you didn't know, is Moses.

Indeed, "The Ten Commandments" is such effective theater that, after 2 1/2 hours of cheesy stagecraft and innocuous, blaring upbeat music, we don't just understand Moses, don't just aspire to be Moses, we actually become Moses. That is to say, "The Ten Commandments" has the power to leave a epiphany-seeking theatergoer speechless.

But that is not to say that there aren't pleasures to be had in watching the many leggy slaves in revealing costumes delicately climbing ladders and seductively squirming under the heel and whip of their Egyptian masters. It is not to say that there aren't goose bumps to be raised when the synthesizers in the pit hit really low notes at really loud volumes so that sound waves have the not-unpleasant force of pummeling wind. Nor is it to say that, if you happen to be sitting close to the stage, as I was, when a furious burst of flame tells us it's plague time, you feel its searing heat and see spots all through intermission.

Back to the slaves and their sexy costumes for a minute. "The Ten Commandments" is, at heart, the vision, fantasy and perhaps spiritual undertaking of a popular fashion designer, Max Azria, founder of the design house BCBG Max Azria. "In 2001, Max saw the musical 'Les Dix Commandments' in France and knew he had to bring it to the United States," his credits tell us.

"Les Dix Commandments," a popular musical in France is, of course, French. Feeling the need to Americanize the show, the Tunisian-born French-trained designer, who has demonstrated a sure touch in finding an American accent for his French fashions, remade the whole thing -- new music, new lyrics, new staging, Val Kilmer and, of course, Azria's own costumes.

To his credit, Azria has done more than produce the world's most extravagant, biblically themed fashion show, even if Patrick Leonard's feel-good songs are fine runway material and the show has been mounted in a mall -- the Kodak being at Hollywood & Highland, where BCBG is well represented.

Azria is clearly no fool. For opening night, he attracted a red-carpet celebrity crowd. And he gave them at least something of what they wanted. Despite aspects of staging ineptitude and disappointing special effects, "The Ten Commandments" has a slick polish and just enough punch and too few laughs to keep it from being one of those historical disasters that you just have to see.

OK, perhaps the pelvis-wiggling Bedouins are worth a footnote.

The main function of "The Ten Commandments," which is through-composed, is to simplify the story of Moses into easily digestible emotional bits, into songs and dances. And for the most part, it does that effectively. When Moses is selected to lead his people, he sings, what else, "Why Me?" When the Red Sea parts, the Hebrews sing "Nothing we can do but take the leap into the deep." Maribeth Derry wrote the lyrics.

Indeed, given that there is no dialogue and everyone sings similarly styled music, "The Ten Commandments" does become, in a funny way, less a story of individuals than a saga of larger emotions. The cast is huge, some 50 strong, and everyone is beautiful. Few singers or dancers distinguish themselves with a personal sound or style. High notes are calculated to get applause. Adam Lambert, as Joshua, does the best in "Is Anybody Listening?" It is also the best song.

The Egyptian unit set is one of the show's least clever aspects. Large video screens show us the desert and the raging waters of the Red Sea. The burning bush is wheeled out on an especially fake-looking rock, its two handlers not well disguised in the back, gingerly operating the fire. The plagues are shadowy projections. The Red Sea parting is unimpressive -- accomplished by fog, billowy curtains, video and a stage elevator.

The story is the one you know, especially if you saw the Cecil B. DeMille Technicolor epic. But Kilmer is no Charlton Heston. Reduced only to song, which he sings in an earnest, breathy voice, he seems little more than a handsome stick figure. Clearly visible, at least from two different seats I tried, were monitors scrolling his lines for him.

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