May 6, 2013

A Moses Moment

Rooting around my back pages, I happened to come across a 2004 post about a number of religion-themed shows I'd seen at the time in L.A. (Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God, the Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, Hollywood Hell House), which comes to rest in a contemplation of a mega-production I had almost forgotten: a pop musical of Ten Commandments starring Val Kilmer as the stammering, reluctant rescuer, which I called
a smashing example of an increasingly rare cultural commodity: unintentional camp on a grand scale. There’s no winking here, no self-conscious acknowledgement of its own cheesiness, which somehow makes it all the more stunning. I went because Weekly Variety was interested in a story from the scene of a purported train wreck—there were reports that its performances had been cut back in response to bad press, and fresh talk that its planned January run at Radio City Music Hall in New York has been “postponed.” (Souvenir item of the year is a $7 totebag, for sale in the Kodak lobby, with the “Val Kilmer IS Moses” artwork and the following optimistic itinerary: “Hollywood New York Chicago Boston Las Vegas.”) Frankly, it doesn’t look like a train wreck; it looks a well-oiled vehicle utterly confident of its destination. It’s a crazy train, surely, but it shows no signs of going off the rails.
That is, except in the lead performance of Val Kilmer, who seems genuinely humbled by the scale of the show. He’s not a natural stage performer; he has a reticence that can draw us in on-screen, and while it’s often weirdly compelling onstage, he seems to be not entirely present but simply lets the show wash over him and take him. At one point on the night I saw it, while the cast was booming a closing number about saying a prayer for the children (favorite lyric, from the just-down-from-Sinai-with-the-tablets Moses: “Beyond right and wrong, we’re all the same”), Kilmer put his head down and stopped singing for about 30 seconds, either in sincere prayer or exhaustion. You just don’t see this on American Idol
One thing we would eventually see on Idol, though: the performer who tore up the role of Joshua, one Adam Lambert.

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