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Children of Eden

by Rich See

Our hands can drop the knife, our hearts can choose to stop the hating, for every moment of our lives is the beginning...
---the cast of Children of Eden

Bradley Dean and Eduardo Rioseco
S. B. Dean (center) and E. Rioseco
(Photo: Stan Barouh)
Ford's Theatre's Children of Eden breathes new life into the Bible's Book of Genesis with energetic, colorful, acrobatic staging. The production values are extremely high and the cast includes some incredible voices. With aerialists, a huge rising sun and setting moon, and an ark that lowers down from the wings what once seemed like a small stage appears immense. It's a fast paced show that's slight on depth and high on glitz.

With music and lyrics written by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, and most recently Broadway's hit Wicked) and a book by John Caird (Les Misérables and Nicholas Nickleby); Children of Eden first appeared on London's West End in 1991 and ran for a short 103 performances. Schwartz and Caird continued to work on the production for several more years and then remounted it at the regional Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey for a six week run with several big name stars including Stephanie Mills and Adrian Zmed. It's a musical that is highlighted more by the variety of musical styles than the meaningfulness of the lyrics, which tend to be less than interesting and contain moments such as Eve declaring "we did a little breeding..." or Noah's family urging him on with "Oh Noah, you go-ah..." (Apparently, as long as it rhymes...) Though some of the lyrics are quite funny such as Noah's family proclaiming once the sun comes out "Oh ain't it good after all the nights we spent smelling rain and gopher wood..."

In a nutshell Children of Eden is a retelling of the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah's Ark. Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Caird take a very liberal, Disney-like license to the Old Testament. In the first act, God creates Adam and Eve (simultaneously) and introduces them to the Garden of Eden. Eve immediately begins questioning everything, while Adam seems to be a bit of a science geek. Fairly quickly Eve is under the Tree of Knowledge and soon eating an apple, whereupon her eyes are immediately opened and she tells God, who is referred to throughout the play as Father, "I can see everything you can see.". Father, who in this instance is a very patriarchal deity and seemingly not all-knowing, is extremely upset and banishes Eve, but first makes Adam choose between himself or Eve. Adam chooses Eve and eats the apple. Outside "in the wasteland" Eve is happy as can be because she is self-sufficient -- apparently the world's first feminist -- while Adam is pining for Eden making daily offerings of corn. (Corn is indigenous to North America, but the grain-based sacrifice is used to highlight a point later in the story.) Cain and Abel are born, Adam appears wimpier than ever passively-aggressively blaming Eve for their troubles, Eve seems to be losing respect for Adam, and then Cain -- who, we are assured, is much like Eve -- finds Stonehenge and a whole tribe of other people (a violent people who make animal sacrifices). This causes a fight in the Brady Bunch-like Wasteland and Cain kills Abel in an angry fit when he meant to kill Adam. Not exactly the way the Bible goes, but at this point no one seems to care. Father steps in and banishes his grandson after placing "The Mark of Cain" on the young man and all his descendants. End of Act One. Act Two does a similar retelling of the Noah's Ark story, changing parts of the story for dramatic effect including Noah telling his children to go, find the tree of knowledge, and eat its fruit. Which, of course, started all the trouble in the first place...

Ford's Theatre's cast does an incredible job and from a technical standpoint, the staging is excellent. Director and choreographer David Bell has pulled together a show that rivals some larger scale productions as far as staging and casting are concerned. However some of his choices were culturally insensitive and strange. The casting of Cain and Abel has some disturbing racial undertones, as well as the casting of Noah's sons. His use of what appears to be a Hindu-like caste mark to distinguish "The Children of Cain"; is another instance that seems to have a racial aspect to its inheritors. And again, there is a subtext occurring when Noah's sons announce the direction's each will go in order to repopulate the earth. It's simply strange to see a theatrical performance in this day that's unsophisticated, culturally insensitive, and needlessly distracting.

As a choreographer, Mr. Bell excels. The dance numbers are inspired and the use of aerialists is sheer entertainment. The black flags symbolizing rain work very well, as do the use of acrobats to create the various animals coming into the ark. The staging of Eve's eating an apple is delicious fun.

James Leonard Joy's set is a marvel. Two stories and taking up every available inch of the stage, it magically shifts with Diane Ferry Williams' lighting. Rising suns, setting moons, jungles, wasteland -- it changes magically. Mariann Verheyen's costumes incorporate some African styles, which is the only nod given to the academic cradle of life. Being a family-oriented production, Children of Eden escapes the nudity aspects of the creation story with Adam and Eve dressed like shipwreck survivors in brown tunic-like ensembles.

Standouts in the cast include Becca Ayers as Eve. Her voice is amazing and her delivery pulls the humor out of each line. When Eve bids farewell in her death scene it is actually quite touching. Bradley Dean as Father/God is a standout. He seems to be having a great deal of fun with the role, has a wonderful singing voice, and provides a patriarchal-like presence, although he is not that much older than the rest of the cast. André Garner, who portrays Cain and Japheth makes his notes soar and portrays the angst-ridden young man characters very well. Nicholas Belton's Abel comes across as the sincere son that every parent wishes to raise. Karen Olivo brings Yonah, the servant girl, a great deal of depth and innocence in the face of an unfair and unyielding fate. Joe Cassidy's Adam and Noah portray men desiring to know their spiritual sides, while Tyrone Davis and Monique L. Midgette's solos in the song "Generations" are infectiously joyous.

All in all, the production has a great deal to offer, especially to families looking for something to simply enthrall and entertain children 10 years and up. Its lengthy running time of two and a half hours makes it not the best choice for younger children. And although I was less than overwhelmed, by the end, it was apparent most of the audience loved the show, because Children of Eden received a standing ovation. I, however, was hoping the flood would come early... before the ark was even started.

Children of Eden
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Book by John Caird
Based on a concept by Charles Lisanby
Directed by David Bell
featuring Becca Ayers, Nicholas Belton, Joe Cassidy, Bradley Dean, André Garner, Telly Leung, Karen Olivo, Matt Baker, Tyrone Davis, David W. Gilleo, Ivo Gueorguiev, Clark Johnsen, Kelly McCormick, Monique L. Midgette, Brendt Reil, Christeena M. Riggs, Eduardo Rioseco, Toni Trucks, Kara Tamekia Watkins, Miles Butler, Jermaine Crawford, Brian Jordan Riemer, and Nadia Danielle Ross
Choreography: David Bell
Music Direction: Brad Haak
Scenic Design: James Leonard Joy
Lighting Design: Diane Ferry Williams
Costume Design: Mariann Verheyen
Orchestral Reductions: David Siegel
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth Street NW, Washington
Telephone: 202-347-4833
TUE - SAT @7:30, SAT - SUN @2:30; $29 - $45
Opening 03/25/04, closing 06/06/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 03/30/04 performance
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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