Regional Reviews: San Francisco
An Amiable Production of Stephen Schwartz and John Caird musical Children of Eden at the Willows
The Willows Theatre of Concord is currently presenting a likable production of Stephen Schwartz and John Caird's Children of Eden featuring a very large cast of adults and children. The musical, which was devised in the late '80s, is loosely based on Old Testament stories including the creation of the world, Adam (Bruce Thompson) and Eve's (C. Kelly Wright) expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the conflict between Cain (Erwin G. Ubi) and Able (Darrin Glesser) and Noah (Bruce Thompson) and his family's survival of the great flood.
Radio City Music Hall in New York approached Stephen Schwartz in the late 1980s to write a special musical based on biblical stories of the Old Testament for a special summer-long musical attraction that would feature animals and all of the bells and whistles that the large theater could muster. I think somehow even the Rockettes would be involved. Mr. Schwartz got to work on a score but before he could complete the task, he was informed by the Radio City management that they had decided not to stage the musical because of mounting costs. The composer had a score but nowhere to go.
Children of Eden finally had a world premiere in London in 1991. Unfortunately, the opening coincided with the war in Iraq and one of the worst slumps in audience attendance. The show got mixed reviews which did not help. It finally closed after 100 performances. The musical was revised and its American premiere occurred at the Paper Mill Playhouse in November 1997 with Adrian Zmed playing Adam and Noah. It received good reviews. Several years ago, the American Musical Theatre of San Jose did an elaborate version with Mr. Zmed repeating his role New York produced an AIDS benefit concert of the musical with Jai Rodriguez of Queer Eye for Straight Guy featured in the cast.
The Willows production, under the able direction of Andrew F. Holtz, is impressive. The musical contains a joyful blend of both fable and biblical episodes from the Book of Genesis. The director has assembled a large cast of 42 to present the allegories. The choral work and choreography of this group is stunning. The two tier stage has been extended so that it reaches out into the audience of this small theater. The set and costumes are from the Paper Mill Playhouse, but the apparel still looks new. The production also has an electronic score.
Schwartz's music is laced with attractive if unoriginal gospel songs. It is a score that is pleasant but unmemorable. Some of the songs are good, such as "The Naming," sung with great gusto by Bruce Thompson (national tour of Titanic and Les Miserables) and C. Kelly Wright (Memphis, Bat Boy, and Gypsy at TheatreWorks). The snake song sung by five actors could have be a little saucier.
Children of Eden's show stopper is the opening of the second act, with the song "Generations," to a beat of African rhythms. Director Holtz has the cast dressed as animals coming down the aisles to the stage in preparation to go onto Noah's ark. It has look of the opening scene of Disney's The Lion King. The choral work on the song is awesome as is the uplifting "In the Beginning" at the end of the show.
Bruce Thompson sings with engaging authority as Adam and the astute Noah in the second act. C. Kelly Wright comes into her own with an amazing voice as Eve and as Noah's comforting wife. She is outstanding in her rendition of "Children of Eden" that ends the first act. Erwin G. Urbi (recently completed the three city tour of Dreamgirls) gives a standout performance as Cain and Japheth. His voice rings throughout the whole theater. Darrin Glesser (Memphis at TheatreWorks) as Ham in the second act makes a good showing in "Generations." James Monroe Iglehart (Memphis and Little Night Music at TheatreWorks) gives a consummate performance as God with his powerful voice. Natalie Amaya (National Tour of Selena, a Musical Celebration of Life) is touchingly effective as Yohah. She is pensive in "Sailor of the Skies" with a beautiful bell clear voice.
Children of Eden plays through April 18th at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Ave, Concord. For tickets call 925-798-1300 or visit www.willowstheatre.org. Their next production is Treasure Island, by Ara Watson from the novel by Robert Lewis Stevenson. It opens on May 4th and runs through June 6th.