CCM‘s Children of Eden Inspired by the Spark of Creation
Posted On July 7, 2017
Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Children of Eden: UC College-Conservatory of Music
One of the most baffling musical theatre mysteries to me is why Children of Eden, the masterful musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by John Caird, never made it to Broadway or even off Broadway. To me, the score is as consistently brilliant or more than any of Schwartz’s work, and has something to offer over each of his other hits: more cohesive than Godspell, more accessible than Pippin, and more genuine and heartfelt than Wicked. Unfortunately, for now, it seems Children of Eden only survives as an ongoing staple in the community theatre and student production repertoire. Luckily, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music breathes new life into this lovely show (literally) in its studio series this spring.
The plot is a humanistic twist on Genesis: Father (Phillip Johnson-Richardson), a paternalistic and very human figure of God, creates Adam and Eve in his own image as his children to be his family in the Garden of Eden. Although Adam (Bryce Baxter) is satisfied, Eve’s (Ciara Alyse Harris) inevitable yearning for understanding and growth leads her to lose her innocence at the Tree of Knowledge, after which she (and Adam, who chooses to follow her) are exiled to the wilderness. The cycle continues as their son Cain’s (Zack Triska) questioning and desire for exploration leads to conflict and tragedy for his brother Abel (Ej Dohring). In the second act, the cycle begins again with Noah (Gabe Wrobel), as his son Japheth (Stavros Koumbaros) defiantly takes the serving girl, Yonah (Emily Royer), a tainted descendant of Cain, as his wife on the ark with him, angering both Noah and the Father. Will this cycle of control, yearning, defiance and conflict ever be broken?
No synopsis can really do justice to the richness and depth of these characters’ stories. The themes of parenthood, obligation, free will, and forgiveness are deftly interwoven and recast throughout the play, and if it has a flaw it is that it hits us on the head with them again and again without any attempt at subtlety. But no matter, these themes are so fundamental to all of us and the human condition, and the characters so connected to our own lives and feelings, that the emotional resonance is palpable.
Stephen Schwartz’s varied and soaring music heightens the impact. Although the cast of 23 CCM students, who tend to be younger since this is not a MainStage production, may not all yet be quite as vocally confident as their upperclass counterparts, they are more than up for the task. Standouts for me were Bryce Baxter, who effortlessly portrayed Adam’s transition from innocence to cynicism and absolutely nailed the agony of his choice in “World Without You,” and Ciara Alyse Harris, who has to anchor the first half of the show with Eve’s weightier numbers, “The Spark of Creation” and “Children of Eden,” doing so with depth and sincerity. Zack Triska ably brings out Cain’s frustration and yearning in “Lost in Wilderness”, while Emily Royer’s Yonah tugged at our heartstrings in “Stranger to the Rain”. Mention should also be made of Jenny Mollet, who did not have a named part but absolutely brought the house down with her solos in “Wasteland” and “Generations”. Finally, dramatically, I would give kudos to Phillip Johnson-Richardson as the Father. At first I thought he was a little too subdued, but as time went on his restrained, very human portrayal belied the turmoil underneath, Often, I could not take my eyes off of him as he sat observing the action in various degrees of remoteness, and I enjoyed watching his wordless acting choices as he followed his children’s successes and failures. Also, his release of emotion in the finale was probably the most authentic expression of joy on any actor’s face that I have seen in recent memory.
The real standout of the show, however, was the chorus as a whole. Each choral number was a highlight, and it is a tribute to Steve Goers, the music director (who also backed up the music with a single piano) that none of the power of these numbers was lost despite a smaller cast (the original American version had 60) and no orchestra. I do wish the resources of the studio series allowed for a few more instruments or at least some percussion which would have enhanced many of the numbers, especially those related to the animals. If you enjoyed this score, do get a copy of the original cast album and you will get even more appreciation for Stephen Schwartz’s brilliant work. What was lacking in orchestral depth, however, was made up for by the very organic and eye-catching movement and choreography that accompanied many of the numbers.
Children of Eden allows for a great deal of directorial discretion and choices, and director Vince DeGeorge (who also choreographed) had a very Intelligent Design to this show. (Sorry, couldn’t resist). Most often, the parts of Adam/Noah, Cain/Japheth, Eve/Mama Noah and Abel/Shem are cast with the same actors, to emphasize the parallels in their stories. This was not done here, presumably to spread around the parts, and while I missed it to some extent, the reunion of the first act cast actually heightened the emotional impact of the finale significantly. I also worried whether the uniform age of the cast (this is a very generational play, after all) would detract from its impact, but instead it gave it another dimension. These were really a group of storytellers, just bringing to life this story that is core to everyone, not trying to over-portray different ages or circumstances but bringing their own personal experience and emotions to the characters. This was underlined by a small but meaningful directorial choice—all the actors were gathered onstage before the first and second act, just being themselves and interacting with each other and the audience, before gradually merging into the show. In some ways they weren’t actors at all, just human beings sharing their story with the rest of us. Likewise, the costumes were simple, natural clothing, seemingly chosen by the actors to fit their own personality. The set (by Logan Greenwell) was remarkably inorganic, full of human bricabrac like chairs and tables. Perhaps, again, the aim was to remind us how remote we are from Eden right now—Father and Noah even use an Ipad to catalog the animals. The set worked marvelously, and despite its simplicity it had a few tricks up its sleeve, particularly in the second act with a wonderful way to portray the movement and precariousness of the Ark.
Taken as a whole, the CCM cast and crew exceeded my expectations to bring to life one of my most beloved musicals and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it. The show only runs one weekend, and there is no opportunity for tickets along the normal channels anymore, but if you want to catch the show Saturday or Sunday you could still show up at the CCM box office early and get on a waiting list, which would likely land you a ticket if you are early enough.