Updated: Jun 20
"...A feast for the eyes - half musical and half Cirque du Soleil!"
"Children of Eden," a joyous weave of fable and Biblical allegory, closed to thunderous ovation this past Sunday at Cal State Fullerton’s Clayes Performing Arts Center after a little more than a two week run. The show’s performance schedule was from October 26th to November 11th, and, at very little surprise, it turned out to be one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.
Author John Caird, who also co-adapted and co-directed "Les Miserables," teaming with Oscar award-winning lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz, transfigured the first nine chapters of Genesis into an enchanting pageant of splendor and irresistible force at the CSUF’s Little Theatre with much acclaim. Mr. Schwartz, who has been associated with other Biblically derived musical works, including ''Godspell,'' has written a most ambitious and impressive score that could very well be Disney in its lightness and simplicity, but spiced with a variety of jubilant tunes, haunting melodies and sensitive lyrics. Boasting a sprawling cast of performers, it is a feast for the eyes - half musical and half Cirque du Soleil, with its varied motifs, colorful imagery and vivid special effects.
Directed by renowned actor/director Rufus Bonds Jr., who has an impressive resume himself heading shows around the world such as “Porgy and Bess,” Broadway’s “Rent,” and “Parade,” Director Bonds has staged this timeless tale with energy, grace and power. Bonds also is a Eugene O’Neill finalist, an Ovation Award winner, a Drama Desk nominee and an NAACP Award winner. In addition, he received a coveted Lifetime Achievement Award from former President Barack Obama.
Concentrating on stories around Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah's Ark, the show takes wide liberties with the Biblical account and is more of an apologue about the relationship between parents and children than it is about religion.
The constant that binds the two stories together is “Father,” the God figure character played regally by Jack O’Leary, who is more human in his thoughts and reactions than like the traditionally portrayed Deity. As Schwartz explains on one occasion, “He is called Father in the cast of characters, not God, because it is his feelings and behavior as a Father that we are talking about in this particular piece.”
A rich choral opening introduces Father who summons light, vegetation and human life in the massive “Let There Be” as Adam (Jeff Garrido) and Eve (Brianna Clark) enter the sumptuous estate of Eden, overshadowed from afar by the bountiful and glittering Tree of Knowledge. There is a lot going on visually and musically in this number. In addition to Mr. O’Leary’s extraordinary performance, who exhibits a formidable presence with a voice to match, Mr. Garrido as Adam shows a range of emotions from innocence to wise and weary, along with soaring vocals. Ms. Clark connected with the audience immediately, not only from her pristine singing, but because of her headstrong, Kathryn Hepburn-like nature.
Two of the early songs in the show about having obedient children are called ”Grateful Children” by Adam and Eve and ''Father's Day,'' by Father, of course, referring to the universe not amounting to ''a hill of beans till you pass along your genes.'' The song concludes with, ''That's what it means to be a father,'' which may have gotten a few puzzled looks, especially from early-childhood experts in the audience.
The declamatory singing of lyrics like ''Aren't they sweet when they're asleep?'' and ''Sweet dreams; see you in the morning'' conjures up the Darlings' departure for the evening in ''Peter Pan.'' And then there's ''Innocent and simple, I think he's got my nose - She's got my dimple.'' You get the picture.
With “The Naming,” which is a lush, colorful extravaganza with action everywhere, Adam and Eve spends time in song as Father takes notes while naming all the animals alphabetically and defining words for all that is in the garden. Ensemble dancers fill the stage wearing imaginative masks and costumes as beasts of the forest and assorted feathered friends, walking, crawling, hopping – all reminiscent of “The Lion King.”
Ciard’s book turns the creation narrative on its head by making the story’s villains into admirable revolutionaries. For instance, while Adam is content and busy naming the mimed procession of all the creatures of the world, Eve becomes so fascinated by that bright new word "beyond," that we know it's only a matter of time before the Snake shows her the quickest way to get there.
And sure enough, with traditional musical theatre flair, somewhat amusing in places, the saucy and tempting snake, accompanied by six serpent-like actors who abide in the Tree of Knowledge, join Eve in a jaunty “In Pursuit of Excellence,” which results in Eve eating the forbidden fruit, and then coyly offering Adam a dinner of turnovers, strudel and cider, attempting to avoid divulging the ingredients.
But sin is sin, and when Eve eats the apple, Father offers Adam an unholy choice. He can follow Eve out of the garden and remain forever expelled, or stay without Eve. "Don't make me choose! Either way it's more than I can bear to lose," sings Adam, in a refrain that becomes the leitmotif of the evening.
Actually, “in the beginning,” Father could probably benefit from some therapy. He is at first, strict and temperamental, but essentially a gentle spirit. His rationale: It is only through loving his wayward children that he learns to be a truly loving and tolerant god.
Then later, there’s Cain's defiance of his own father, Adam, who has implored him not to go past the waterfall for his own safety. Personified by the talented Dillon Klena (“Newsies”), the adventurous Cain in classic James Dean style, seeking a world east of Eden, flouts Adam’s rules, defies the wrathful Father in his quest for independence, slays his brother, Abel (Seann Altman), and is banished as a fugitive. Acted with sturdy vigor and vocalized with an amazingly crystal-clear voice in “Lost in the Wilderness,” Mr. Klena lights up the stage as he rebelliously wanders into the forest to discover prehistoric ruins and towering stone monuments.
After the intermission, time has passed, and “Generations,” a rousing second-half choral opener set to African rhythms, covers the “begats.” Then thunderclaps and flashes of lightning segue to the Flood and Ark, and the beasts and birds are once again on the stage entering two by two in the evening’s show-stopper, “The Return of the Animals.”
Next, we see Japheth (Timothy H. Lee) in an almost identical conflict as before, defying both his father Noah and Father himself by choosing a descendant of the accursed Cain as his wife, the outcast servant girl, Yonah (Yadira Del Rincon), who he smuggles aboard the ark. Upon her discovery, Noah cannot choose whether to throw Yonah and Japheth off the boat, or marry them and risk Father's wrath. Yonah’s humble, yet strong rendition of "Stranger to The Rain" was gorgeous and moving as she accepted her lot. In her duet of “In Whatever Time We Have” with Japheth, they join in a beautiful pledge of love.
But through it all, Father is resolute, and beautifully expresses love and joy in all his children, despite his profound disappointment in their willful disregard of his commands. When land is sighted, Director Bonds scores with a rousing, gospel-flavored “Ain’t It Good,” featuring the entire ensemble cast.
With musical direction by David Lamoureaux and Choreography by William F. Lett, the harmony of dance, music and storytelling together manifested a smooth flow of action, complemented by sumptuously colorful set pieces by designer Mauri Smith. Fight Choreography was supervised by Michael Polak. Jean-Yves Tessier designed lighting that was truly colorful and dramatic in just the right places. The costumes by Whitney Claytor were a work of art, combining unique, symbolic attire ranging from the primitive, animalistic multitude of the birds and beasts to the simplistic, yet modernized accoutre worn by the cast, although a bit more of a tribal quality look in the second act.
Kate Galleran’s superb job of MakeUp and Hair was top-notch, and I’m sure was a real challenge, considering the vast number of actors. Sound Design was managed by Lauren Zuiderveld without a hitch, and Projection Design was by the team of Nick Durand and Bryce Moon.
The entire cast of "Children of Eden" deserves much applause for an excellent run and a spectacular achievement. The cast includes, in Adam’s alphabetical order: Gabrielle Adner, Seann Altman, Sidney Aptaker, Damian Arteaga, Jisel Soleil Ayon, Sarah Bloom, Brianna Clark, Amanda Domb, Jeff Garrido, Brooke Gatto, Natalie Giannosa, Carissa Hamann, Courtney Hays, Abigail Heilman, Claire Kantz, Jessica Kilgore, Allison King, Kiana King, Dillon Klena, Timothy H. Lee, Marlon James Magtibay, Riley Mawhorter, Gabriel Manley, Avery Mann, Samantha McCabe, Helen McCormick, Carly McLaurin, Amanda Neiman, Jack O'Leary, Jessica Pierini, Yadira Del Rincon, Catie Robinson, Beth Roy, Steven Ruvalcaba, Dylan Schmoll, Robyn Stephenson, Madison Stirrett, Isaiah Suniga, Paige Taylor, Anthony Michael Vacio, Jacob Wayne, and Leianna Weaver.
From the first glimpse of creation to the trials on Noah’s ark, “Children of Eden” captivated, entertained, and enlightened me. May we all embrace the “spark of creation” within us and remember that, though imperfect, the core of our humanity lies in family.
National Youth Arts
The Show Report