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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The operators of Schwartz's website urge parties interested in staging the musical to "travel to see a production near you for ideas and the feeling of the show."Also easier said than done. Lovely and neglected though its score most certainly is, Eden is big. Biblically big, and not so easy for a company to stage or for an audience to embrace.
Hats off then to Cabrillo Music Theatre's Artistic Director Lewis Wilkenfeld for slotting Eden as the company's annual "delightful new show to surprise our audiences." CMT runs are short: a quickie two weekends on the anything-but-intimate Kavli Stage at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
A musical this grand in scope needs some visual and musical pomp and, in that respect, Wilkenfeld's production delivers. The headlining trio of Misty Cotton, Norman Large and Kevin McMahon are hard-working, talented and more than capable of steering this ship — or ark, as the case may be — into port. With nearly 50 credited cast members including a kids' ensemble and singers from seven local high schools and universities, Wilkenfeld's staging definitely has the "children" part covered.
Although the perspective is a little different than what you'd find in Genesis, plot recognition should not be a problem here. Book writer John Caird (working from a concept by Charles Lisanby) begins with God (AKA Father) creating Adam and Eve, and moves through their expulsion from Eden into exile with their sons, Cain, Abel and Seth. In Act 2, Noah and his wife build an ark, pack up the menagerie and take to the seas, all the while struggling with the acceptance of an individual who, because she bears the mark of Cain, is cursed by God. Themes recur from tale to tale, mostly involving children growing up and making their own choices, thereby disappointing their parents.
That Eden's Father both planted a dangerous tree in easy reach and gave his kids free will makes his disappointment in their failures a bit problematic. Caird, Schwartz and Lisanby probably don't want us over-straining our philosophical muscles. With songs like "Stranger to the Rain"and "The Hardest Part of Love" at the ready, Team Eden is aiming squarely for the heart and tear ducts.
Solo numbers, particularly those from Cotton and Natalia Vivino, signal the presence of both an established pro (southland musical theater stalwart Cotton) and the arrival of a ringer. The ability of choreographer Michelle Elkin and musical director Cassie Nicols to corral and coordinate an ensemble of this size without making the endeavor seem like crowd control is, likewise, a feat.
With a full score, a giant cast and a lot of moving parts to contend with, Wilkenfeld's production isn't big on efficiency and the production slows in places. Children of Eden runs a leisurely 2.5 hours including a long first act and a 20 minute intermission.
The kids are plenty cute. Costume designer Noelle Claire Raffy garbs most everybody in era-spanning khaki robes, slacks, dresses and shirts. For a pair of animal-dominated scenes in both the Adam and Eve and Noah tales, young company members take the stage in outfits some of which owe a debt to Julie Taymor's The Lion King duds, others of which look like they came off the sale rack at Costume World.
A bearded and benevolent Large as Father offers some choice bits of parental humor and wisdom to a frisky Adam and Eve, and he broods sadly in the second act after everything falls apart, first in Eden and then throughout the earth. McMahon nicely distinguishes Adam from Noah (both characters are torn apart by rebellious son problems). The actor who was so winningly naïve at the start of creation convincingly shows Adam transitioning from son to father. While companies may be tempted to cast separate actors as the kid and parent versions of Adam and Eve, McMahon and Cotton handle both incarnations with ageless finesse.
Schwartz can justifiably take pride in his score, particularly the second act ballads. Other standout numbers in this production include "The Spark of Creation,"the gospel-laced "Ain't it Good"(both anchored by Cotton) and "In Pursuit of Excellence" which has a six-person serpent passing a hat, Fosse-like, down the line as it works its temptation on Eve. As the servant girl Yonah, Vivino lends her muscular and no-nonsense vocals to "Stranger to the Rain,""Sailor of the Skies"and the love duet "In Whatever Time we Have,"nearly stealing the show each time.
Whether you love or hate this production, CMT's very staging of Eden is gutsy for other reasons. The musical was in place to be the company's final show before CMT cancelled the remaining shows of its 2016-17 season due to financial difficulties. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the company did some creative restructuring, shelved a production of Tarzan and has just announced it will move ahead with three planned shows in 2017. Strong word of mouth now seems as critical for this struggling company as ever.