Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Children of Eden and
Invention of Love

American Musical Theatre of San Jose is presenting their most ambitious musical to date. Stephen Schwartz's Children of Eden has had widespread success in over 130 theaters in the United States. However it has never played on Broadway. The nearest it came to New York was at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1997. The musical first opened in London in 1991. It did not have a long run and it received luke warm reviews.

This production presents a profound musical with some jubilant tunes and sensitive lyrics. The staging of the musical fable was admirable. It reminded me of Julie Taymor's stage presentation of The Lion King, although it predates the Disney musical. The sets were from the Paper Mill Playhouse and they were excellent. There were great imaginative dance numbers to some of the exotic rhythms of Schwartz's score.

The musical is based on the book of Genesis. We probably have the first dysfunctional family in human history. We have Adam played brilliantly by Adrian Zmed who originally created the role in London and also played the first man at the Paper Mill Playhouse. We have Eve played by LaTonya Holmes who was outstanding in the role and we have God, who is called Father played by Joseph Huntington. His was the most powerful voice of the three.

The opening is excellent with the stage in darkness and a chorus in song telling us the beginning of the world. Slowly candle are lit around the enormous stage as they sing of God creating the heavens. God, the Father, comes on stage and sings "Let There Be Light". And light there is. He brings on Adam and Eve and then creates a perfect place for them to live. He calls them his children. This was beautifully staged with the Father creating animals of all kinds. This is where The Lion King syndrome comes in with dancers of all ages coming onto the stage in various animal costumes.

Of course, the Father tells them not to go to the glowing tree on the top of the hill. Eve, who is very talkative and very curious, cannot understand why she can't pick the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Well we know what happens. She goes to the tree and a big puppet snake danced by five exceptional dancers tempts her by singing and dancing "In Pursuit of Excellence". Great soft shoe dance. It was superbly staged and the dancing was bang-up. The staging of the tree was great also. It covered about half of the stage and it glowed. After that the expected happens - expelled from Eden, they wander into the wilderness. The rest of the first act is taken up with the story of Cain and Able.

At this point, the harmonies become dissonant. Cain's (Timothy Gulan) melodies meander freely in "Lost in the Wilderness" . Mr. Gulan had the tendency to shout his songs, and as a result the lyrics were completely lost. I am not sure if it was the sound system's fault or if he had not had enough rehearsal. On the other Brent St. Clair, palying Able, had an excellent soft voice and his enunciation was letter perfect.

Also in the second act, Cain, against his father's wishes, goes over a hill to find a Stonehenge-like ring of towers created by some other tribe. We are never told that Father has created human beings in other parts of the world, and smart ones at that to build such huge stone monuments. They covered the stage. Cain wants to join the company of men, but Adam says no. Cain gets mad and tries to kill Adam with a stone, misses, and hits Able instead. Oh the trials and tribulations of this family. The ending of the first act has about 50 people on stage in colorful costumes singing "Children of Eve." These are grandchildren, great grandchildren, great great ... and so on. Very good choral work however.

The second act centers on Noah and the flood. Once again we have Mr. Zmed playing Noah, La Tonya playing the wife and the two sons playing Japheth and Ham. The second act opens up with a joyful calypso pageant called "Generations". The ark looks enormous. It really is a great and upbeat opening. Colors were striking on the costumes.

To me the best scene of the show occurs with the dance "Return of the Animals" going into the ark. Costume designer Greg Barnes has constructed some wonderfully imaginative animal puppet-mask costumes, a splendid assortment of large and small animals, crawling wicker headed crocodiles, sinuous leopards, jumping antelopes, beautiful zebras and unicorns. Birds fly and the hugh beasts lumber aboard. There are over 50 people on stage in various stages of dance. A grand scene, the show stopper of the night. The march song that goes along with the scene was delightful.

We know the rains were to come and all were safe on board. The musical ends with a stirring gospel song "Ain't It Good." The cast got a stand up ovation on its first night.

I thought John Huntington as God had the most powerful voice. Speaking, he was a bit wishy washy and too vulnerable to be taken very seriously, but when he sang in his baritone voice he provided all the authority required. Zmed still has powerful pipes also. He was achingly sincere as Adam. He also has a terrific body that showed to a good advantage. LaTonya Holmes has a thrilling voice and she brought down the house with the rousing gospel closer "Ain't It Good".

The huge chorus of adults and children handles the ensemble number superbly. The choreography for the animal production numbers were very creative. Choreographer Dottie Lester White should be commended for doing the almost impossible in such a short rehearsal time. Yes it was a stylish entertaining musical for the whole family. The musical runs through Jan 30.

Invention of Love

American Conservatory Theatre once again presents the American premier of a Tom Stoppard play. Last year ACT had such a success with his India Ink and the playwright was so pleased with the production of his work, he entered into negotiations with artistic director Carey Perloff to present his memory play Invention of Love. The play opened at the National Theatre in London to great acclaim of both the critics and public alike. It won the 1997 Evening Standard Award for best play of the year. It transferred to the Haymarket where it ran until Feb 6, 1999. When we were in London in 97, we could not obtain a seat to the production. It was sold out every night.

ACT has assembled a superb cast for this thinking person's play. It centers around A. E. Houseman, Latin scholar and author of "A Shropshire Lad" whose unrequited love for a sporty Oxford contemporary, Moses Jackson, had to be repressed. Houseman's repression led to his studies of classical literature of the Greeks and Romans. He had passionate love of the obliquities of lyric verse of the poets.

Poetry, scholarship and love are entwined in this sympathetic view of a private life lived parallel to the public career of his near contemporary, Oscar Wild. As Rodney said in a post on All That Chat, this is not easy, entertaining theatre. It is slow and very complex. In fact it would help if the audience had a smattering of knowledge about the poets Horace, Manilius and Catullus, since there are long discussions in the first act on these translations. There are discussion of Latin words such as optandum or quicquam. There are even discussions on where the commas should be in a Catullius verse. Yes, you definitely need your wits about you to understand the first act.

This is a word play and Tom Stoppard writes such beautiful words. They flow like a stream of pure gold. Maybe you don't know what they are talking about, but just to listen to the words is like listening to music. The acting, which I will discuss later, is superb.

It is interesting to note that the play reflects the Victorian attitudes of the day. They saw a classical education as the path to virtue and understanding. Stoppard shows us its ignorance and prejudice. The professors said that the students should know everything about the Greeks and Romans but leave out "the buggery". there were long and illicit dissertations about the last Greek battle before the Macedonian in which male lovers fought to the death against the invading Macedonian King Philip.

The second act is more in the spirit of a well written play. Houseman is now a civil servant and Moses is a rising star at the patents office. The two commute to work together and picnic with friends on weekends. One can see the unrequited love of Moses in Houseman's face and manner. In one brilliant scene he confesses his feelings only to be rejected since Moses abhors the homosexual sex. A brave farewell follows with Moses going off the stage leaving Houseman alone onstage. A large bookcase sweeps onto the stage carrying the young Houseman away and replacing him with his older self.

The second act has as a background the rise and fall of Oscar Wilde. In fact there is a sparkling scene between the two that is one of the highlights of the production. Oscar, who is now out of Reading jail, is lounging in France and they compare Housman's closeted homosexuality to Oscar's open love for the male. This was a beautifully written scene.

I can't say enough for the actors. James Cromwell, a wonderful film character actor, plays the elder Houseman. He has ramrod posture and his speeches are very polished. He gives a sublime performance as the 77 year old professorial Houseman. The young Houseman is played by Jason Butler Harner, an astonishing actor. Mr. Harner was great last season as one of the sons in Long Days Journey where I said he was a person to watch. Since that time he played in New York in An Experiment with an Air Pump at the Manhattan Theatre Club. He was also in Macbeth at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Mr. Harner has the burning intensity and almost translucent sensitivity of the young Houseman. Every performer is a gem in this production. Marco Barricelli, who was so manly as Stanley in ACT's Streetcar Named Desire, and the love interest in Rose Tattoo makes a complete about face as the effeminate Oscar Wilde; a tour de force in acting.

I highly recommend this witty play and I put it on a par with Stoppard's Arcadia, The Real Thing, Travesties and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If you want to see acting at its best and a wonderful word play, I suggest you see it. One other thing, don't be sleepy and keep your wits about you. The production runs until Feb 13. "2 Piano , 4 Hands" follows on Feb 17.


- Richard Connema

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