By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In the beginning, Children of Edenlooks like it might have a prayer. What else would you expect from a show that stars God? Adam, Eve and their kids make an appearance. Noah and his bunch come with herds of animals played by adorable young'uns with paper plates and Dixie cups stuck on their heads to look like aardvarks and giraffes. They sing us through the first chapters of the Old Testament, the whole schmear converted into bouncy pop tunes by composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote Godspell, Pippin and most recently Wicked.
Schwartz is a hit maker, writing many musicals that have become huge Broadway smashes stacked with show-stopping songs. But after the first couple of numbers in Eden--particularly "In Pursuit of Excellent," in which five people playing the snake (represented by a long piece of plastic hose) sing a really dull ditty tempting Eve to chomp the apple--it becomes clear why this show, written after Godspell but way before Wicked, never made it to Broadway. It premiered in London in 1991 to mostly terrible reviews. There are 24 songs in Children of Eden, nearly 10 more than Wicked. Not one of them soars to greatness the way "Popular" or "Defying Gravity" do in that show. Nary a show-stopping moment, though songs as dreary as that snake one make you wish the show would stop--for good.
The take on the Bible is also a bit weird in Eden. Like the part about the "ring of stones"--were there Druids lurking around the outskirts of paradise? There are in this interpretation. If there's a theme to Eden, it's "Papa, can you hear me?" After spoiling a good thing, Adam and Eve spend the rest of their lives begging God to talk to them again. In the second act, Mr. and Mrs. Noah do the same. (The libretto for the show is by John Caird of Les Miserables fame.)
As a clunker of biblical proportions, Eden nevertheless has found great success among church youth groups and community theaters that want to stage productions with large, ethnically diverse casts, simple sets and no profanity. Adam and Eve, just created by God in the first song, "Let There Be," arrive in the Garden of Eden fully clothed, including sandals. Safe as houses, as the Brits say.
Maybe that's why Theatre Three chose Children of Eden to run through the holiday season. A nice, safe musical won't offend the old folk who frequent this venue, and it might entertain any grandkids dragged along for a matinee. Well, it might for about 45 minutes. After that, its entertainment value is iffy. Intermission on opening night saw a noticeable exodus by some younger patrons, who, it should be noted, sneaked away two by two even before the animals started marching into the ark. It's a long slog toward the great flood. By the time the dove arrives with the olive branch at the end of the show, we've sailed well into a third hour. You could read Genesis faster than they sing it.
Schwartz's overblown Sunday school pageant, ponderous thought it is, could be a little less so if produced, directed and acted with utmost professionalism and originality. But alas, this is Theatre Three we're talking about. Their acting space may be square, but they cut so many corners, they might as well be theater-in-the-round.
The show suffers from a plague of design mistakes. Ignoring any attempt at intelligent design, Harland Wright's haphazard set is a bargain-basement horror, painted in swoops and swirls of glaring aquas and golds like an enormous motel bedspread. On this unfocused assemblage of platforms, boxes and something in the corner that looks like a great big wad of chewed gum (God stands on it), the cast, including all those kids wearing masks in their craft-class animal outfits, must bob and weave to avoid ramming each other.
Costumes by Michael Robinson put plain muslin tunics and baggy harem pants on Adam and Eve, Kabuki-like vests and wide belts on Cain and Abel and droopy striped kimonos on Noah and his clan. In Eden, original sin begins with bad fashion choices.
Kudos to the kiddos, who couldn't be cuter, but the grown-up actors mostly disappoint. As directed by Doug Jackson (who cast two of his own daughters in the show), James Wesley scowls his way around the stage as both Adam and Noah. A little anger is called for with both characters, but Wesley makes them positively dyspeptic.
Kia Dawn Fulton, so good in Lyric Stage's Ragtime, makes a shrill, brittle Eve. Keith Ferguson plays God with the stiff gray hair and square shoulders of Lorne Greene surveying the Ponderosa. Justin A.P. Jones way overemotes as Cain. Wesley Bourland gives Abel such bland naïveté that he is sometimes hard to locate onstage. Only willowy Ali Faulkner makes some musical magic, beautifully belting the second act solo "Sailor of the Skies" in the role of Yonah, a lowly servant stowing away on the ark. The song itself is generic, like the rest of Schwartz's score, but Faulkner's voice and acting make it momentarily special.
Overall, this staging of Children of Eden has a lot in common with Eve--they both bite.
The Wonderettes warble in close harmony, like distant cousins of the old King Family, those big-haired gals who rivaled the Osmonds and Andy Williams for December TV airtime in the 1960s. There are the usual renditions of "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." But the show's creator Roger Bean has the wit and wisdom to include "Mele Kalikimaka" (the Hawaiian Christmas song), the very fine "All Those Christmas Clichés" by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (the composers of Ragtime and A Man of No Importance) and "Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day" by Lee Jackson and Patti Seymour (sung with seductive oomph by Oristano).
Act 2 of the show finds Diotalevi's character acting a bit overtippled from spiked eggnog, turning the proceedings into an approximation of a Christmas episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. And will the hardware store owner ever show up in the Santa suit to pass out the year-end bonuses?
If you get an aisle seat, be warned that you might end up onstage. Opening night found one happy gent from the second row mugging up a storm after he was plucked for some audience participation. As the ladies sang "Santa Baby" to him, he got a little too into the role of Old Saint Nick and started ad-libbing like mad. But it was all good fun. Who doesn't love a good Christmas cheeseball?