Everyone is buzzing about new blockbuster expansions at Disney and Universal, but another Central Florida theme park recently debuted a major addition that might have slipped under the radar of even the most ardent attractions fans. Most Orlando Weekly readers probably only think about the Holy Land Experience when it grabs headlines and snarls traffic with its annual legally mandated free admission day. But the 18-year-old Christian-themed attraction, which already exhibits some of our area's most ancient artifacts, is now also home to the newest and most extravagant stage show in town.
While HLE was opened in 2001 by Zion's Hope founder Marvin Rosenthal, and was originally controversial for its association with attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, the park has been owned for over a decade by Trinity Broadcasting Network, the self-described "largest Christian television network in the world." TBN CEO Jan Crouch was responsible for redecorating the historically authentic attraction with displays that could charitably be described as over-the-top, including an infamous motorcycle-riding Jesus with whom guests could snap selfies. Thankfully, the tackiest additions have mostly been removed since Crouch's passing in 2016, and the park is turning a new leaf by billing itself as the "all new" Holy Land Experience.
Late last month, I was invited out to the Holy Land Experience for a special "friends and family" performance of David: The King of Jerusalem, an epic three-act musical that is the centerpiece of the park's new daily entertainment schedule. It had been several years since I'd visited HLE, and walking past replicas of the Qumran and Solomon's Temple reminded me that the exquisite scenic design was executed by some of the same artists that built Islands of Adventure. And the 2,000-seat Church of Nations auditorium, which looks like a Roman Colosseum that crash-landed on the Las Vegas Strip, is easily the largest, most technologically advanced theater in any local theme park, from the massive curved video wall that forms the upstage cyclorama to the state-of-the-art sound system with soul-shaking subwoofers that you can feel through the steeply raked stadium seats.
David: The King of Jerusalem tells the Old Testament tale of Israel's iconic monarch through three stages of his life, flashing back and forth through time as the aging ruler reflects on his childhood and early reign. All the familiar fables – slaying Goliath with a slingshot, soothing King Saul with his lyre, and seducing the beautiful Bathsheba – are brought to life through an original contemporary Christian musical score, custom-filmed cinematic vignettes, and an on-stage ensemble of more than 40 performers, making David the most opulent Biblical epic brought to Orlando since Ben-Hur folded nearly 20 years ago.
This ambitious production, along with the rest of the new entertainment being added to the Holy Land Experience, is the brainchild of Robert and Elizabeth Muren, who visited with members of the media during the intermission. The couple, who met in Norway and spent a decade living in Israel before touring the world with religious musicals, not only co-wrote and co-directed the production; he stars as the elder David, while she plays Bathsheba, and their four children help fill out the cast. She's been serving as the park's artistic director for about a year. The family splits their time between Florida and Colorado, where this show originally premiered and where many members of the current cast come from.
"It's a great place, a wonderful environment," Robert says of Orlando. "There's so many talented, wonderful, gifted actors."
The sprawling story of King David has stymied some great composers over the years (including Alan Menken and Tim Rice), and although the Murens' version clearly represents a sincere act of faith, it isn't fully successful as a work of theater. The simplistic lyrics are largely lifted from the Book of Psalms, and the score repeatedly reprises its handful of tunes (some of which sound suspiciously familiar), burying the basic melodies under string-saturated backing tracks.
Most of the actors are excellent – especially Elizabeth, who brings emotional honesty to her underdeveloped character, along with a few faces that will be familiar to Fringe patrons – but Robert's extravagant over-emoting quickly becomes distracting, as does the alphabet soup of incomprehensible international accents among the cast.
As a Jew, I'm obviously not the target audience for this Christian-centric production, so I can overlook the patronizing appropriation of my faith's traditions as mere prologue to messianic prophecy. As an amateur theologian, I could object to the oversimplified depiction of David's repentance and redemption, which makes him seem more like a paragon of piety than a cautionary tale of hubris. On the plus side, this script doesn't blame Bathsheba for her husband's murder and her own rape, as some misogynist retellings imply.
The biggest problem with David is that, despite first-class production values, as drama it often feels static and lifeless. Aside from a brief, baffling Bollywood number, there's virtually no movement on stage; the actors are mostly blocked to stand still and stare out into the audience, making the video backdrop far more kinetic than the live performers. And at almost three hours, it's a chore to sit through the entire production. Luckily, regular guests get to experience David divided into parts, with other interactive performances interspersed in between. It might not have inspired me to book a flight on El Al, but at least the Murens' new musical gives believers a bit of Broadway on their way to the Promised Land.