`Garden': a few delights

TheaterReview

April 12, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

God is good.

Really. Bradley Dean, who plays Jehovah, Lord God Omnipotent in the current production of Children of Eden, has a smooth, dark baritone and a commanding presence.

In fact, the show at the Ford's Theatre is exceptionally well sung. The entire cast has the take-no-prisoners delivery so prized in musical theater. It's a shame, then, that the musical itself is so uninspired, especially given its pedigree.

The music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, who crafted such praiseworthy hits as Godspell and Pippin, and the script is by two-time Tony Award-winner John Caird, who wrote Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby. It's odd that their collaboration should lack psychological insight, memorable melodies and clever lyrics.

Children of Eden tells the biblical tales of the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel and Noah's Ark and is based on the now-trite observation that early man conceived of his relationship to the Divine as that of a child in a family. But instead of using family dynamics to explain the supernatural, Caird uses the Bible as a metaphor for parents and their adult offspring. If he has to take liberties with his source material to make a point, so be it.

Biblical scholars may be surprised to learn that Cain and Abel apparently discovered Stonehenge. And Caird invents the character of a servant girl, Yonah, to teach that inflexible old patriarch Noah - and his Maker - a lesson in tolerance. God may be good, but in the Gospel according to Caird, he is not necessarily infallible.

The script does contain occasional flashes of wit, such as the following discussion about the ark-in-progress between Noah and God (who in the script is addressed as "Father"). Conversations like it can be overheard in workplaces daily:

Father: Have you finished it?

Noah: Nearly, Father.

Father: It's taken long enough.

Noah: A year and a half.

Father: We said a year.

Noah: Yes, I know Father, but it isn't easy building arks. Gopher wood is very scarce. I still haven't figured out exactly what a cubit is. ...

But such clever comments about human nature are the exception. The point of Children of Eden seems to be that parents must learn how to let go of their grown sons and daughters. OK, fine, but it is made again and again and again, especially because the actors portraying Adam and Eve double in the roles of Noah and his wife.

At times, the storytelling is so earnest that when Dean lurches around the stage, starkly back-lighted, clutching his head while complaining of his ungrateful children, he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Frankenstein.

Despite such silliness, the performers achieve some gorgeous moments. As Eve, Becca Ayers sings with such utter conviction that the sounds very nearly solidify into a physical shape with a specific weight and matter. Other standouts include Andre Garner (Cain), Karen Olivo (Yonah) and soloist Monique Midgette.

David H. Bell's choreography in the musical number "The Return of the Animals" (when they file two-by-two onto the ark) is also stirring - even if reminiscent of Julie Taymor's The Lion King and even if some of the athletically demanding gymnastic moves were a bit shaky.

Mariann Verheyen's costumes are made from fabric in clashing patterns of orange, gold, brown and green. They call to mind both pieced-together animal skins, and less felicitously, a court jester's motley.

At its worst, Children of Eden is bland and inoffensive. It likely will be popular with tourists who want to take their children to the historic theater. And there are worse images to leave the theater with than the one of Noah, his sons and the animals crammed together on the ark while the winds howl and the waters rise.

For better or worse, we're all in the same boat.

Children of Eden

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through June 6

Tickets: $29-$45

Call: 800-955-5566 or visit www.tickets.com

Information: www.fordstheatre.org

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