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Make Our Garden Grow by Matthew Murray

  • CoE.jpgWith the skyrocketing of Stephen Schwartz's stock in the years since Wicked went megahit in 2003, it's genuinely amazing that producers haven't been drooling over each other trying to give Schwartz's "lost" musical, Children of Eden, a major New York mounting. It has, from a commercial perspective, everything: small cast requirements, plenty of opportunities for stratospheric belting, subject matter about as universally presold as possible (it's tough to outdo the Book of Genesis), and high-caliber lead roles any star would die to play (we're talking Adam, Eve, Noah, and God here!). And, not that such things matter, but the show isn't half-bad.

    No, I can't explain exactly why, nearly 20 years after its professional inception (in 1991), the closest Broadway has gotten to a run of Children of Eden is a large-scale Paper Mill Playhouse production in the late 1990s, which produced a cast recording. (A World AIDS Day concert in Manhattan in 2003, starring Julia Murney and Norm Lewis, was a one-night-only thing.) But it's a snap to see why it attracts theatre companies all over the country—including the Astoria Performing Arts Center, which is presenting its own mounting through May 22. Any show that needs and asks so little, yet provides so much to both theatre folk and audiences alike, is basically a slam-dunk. And in its handsome and highly respectable mounting, APAC's production gets basically everything right.

    Within its own limited means, mind you. This means only a six-piece band (under Lilli Wosk's musical direction) and set designs (by Michael P. Kramer) that capture only the elemental nature and not the potentially epic pageantry of either Schwartz's music or the overall physical look. But so what? This isn't Ragtime, which in its bizarre, fractured structure and uneven writing requires spectacle merely to come across, as APAC proved last year. This is the Bible, which has survived and thrived through Hollywood blockbusters, shoestring-budget community theatre productions, and Sunday School readings alike. It doesn't need any help.

    All it needs is clarity, energy, and honesty, all of which it receives here under Tom Wojtunik's direction. With the help of Kramer's runway set, which bisects the audience seating area, and especially Dan Jobbins's lights and Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes and puppets, he finds myriad ways to stage some of history's biggest events without needing millions of dollars of special effects. Animals parade into the Garden of Eden (in the first act) and into Noah's Ark (in the second) by way of shadow and bunraku puppets. Lights capture the face of God, aka Father (played here James Zannelli) fashioning the universe from a tiny ball of illumination that explodes into complete being as the sun. The expulsion from paradise early on and the later draining away of the dregs of humanity in 40 days and 40 nights of flooding are handled just as they should be: in the actors' eyes and quavering voices, as they face a frightening world in which they're forced to trust themselves for the first time ever.

    So best of luck not being moved by the way Adam and Eve (Joseph Spieldenner and Emmy Raver-Lampman) fall in love and then fall from grace, or how their children Cain and Abel (Alan Shaw and Stephen Gelbi) learn all the wrong lessons from them and their Creator. Or how Noah and his wife (Spieldenner and Raver-Lampman again) learn to deal with their own inborn prejudices against their son Japeth (Shaw) and his chosen wife Yonah (Stacie Bono), who bears the Mark of Cain—the type of person God insisted must not be on the Ark.

    The story of the eons-old difficulty that parents and children have relating to each other and living up to each other's expectations is always powerful. When applied against a Biblical backdrop that shows how even in the Good Book people kept making the same mistakes time and time again, it takes on an extra weight that reminds you that even mankind's most iconic figures dealt with family problems at least as forbidding as those we all face today.

    Like the collection of stories from which Children of Eden springs, this show and production derive these all-consuming truths from the depths of fable and fantasy, and teach those irresistible messages with a minimum of fuss. John Caird's book (based on a concept from Charles Lisanby) takes a few liberties, but is overall a potent distillation of the mood, method, and meaning of these key Genesis events. If the central device of a series of storytellers is overused, it highlights the sense of oral tradition and whimsical reinterpretation on which so much of the Bible (or at least the way we see it today) is based.

    And this company of mostly young, mostly unseasoned actors beautifully evokes the uncertain confusion of the characters: Shaw's energy is precisely, messily channeled as the family dissenters, for example, just as Spieldenner and Raver-Lampman beautifully balance their characters' faith in God and faith in themselves, progressing firmly but simply from the innocence of Eden to the burden of being in charge of rebuilding a washed-away world. Bono is thrilling as the caring, ever-tentative Yonah, and Jonathan Gregg is unexpectedly magnetic in his tiny roles as next-in-line sons Seth (for Adam) and Shem (for Noah). But everyone feels right, and blends excitement, improvisation, and topical gravity with thoughtfulness and good humor.

    If Schwartz's score for this show is better than the one he wrote for Wicked it still doesn't rise to the caliber of his best work, on Pippin and Godspell. With the exception of "Lost in the Wilderness," for Adam and his garden-banished family, and "Ain't It Good," when Noah's brood finally finds its dry-land home, distinct and memorable songs are nonexistent. Many, in fact, bear the uneasy style of a composer in search of a unifying sound, and settling on tinkling dissonance (in Act I) and more conventional Broadway (in Act II), without ever defining the boundaries of his choice. Too many of the songs seem to go on and on, but never really get where you think they're going.

    In fairness, so does the show as a whole. Clocking in at two and a half hours, the show often seems to want to say more than it can completely support with original and color, and thus can sometimes feel more rambling than profound. Wojtunik's pacing is, I suspect, as on-the-nose as any director's could be with this show. But even so, you can't help but realize how Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick accomplished even more in their "The Diary of Adam and Eve" chapter in The Apple Tree, with but three cast members and a scant 45-minute running time. Schwartz, as is his contemporary wont, has not remembered that less very frequently is more.

    It certainly is in the APAC production, which survives on its modest production values by investing the characters and situations with all a humanity that almost transcends the calculated coldness of so much of Schwartz's score. No one involved lets on that Children of Eden can be overlong and underdeveloped. To them, it's as fervent and fleshed-out a theatrical creation as they come. That approach, that faith, is everything. And lo, the results are good.

    Photos by Jen Maufrais Kelly. Top to bottom: Adam and Eve and Noah and his wife, played by Joseph Spieldenner and Emmy Raver-Lampman; Yonah (Stacie Bono) and Japeth (Alan Shaw); and Noah's family.

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