REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
With the angst over the immediate future of Cabrillo Music Theatre finally receding into the background, it’s time to focus once again on what is happening on the Cabrillo stage. Its current production of Children of Eden, which made its debut last night at the Fred Kavli Theatre, proves how indispensable Cabrillo continues to be to the arts in this community. The high production values, sensitive direction, superlative casting, and, yes, insistence on live musicians in the pit, have made Cabrillo a consistently professional theater company in Ventura County for more than two decades, a streak that, thanks to some Frank Merriwell heroics by anonymous donors, will continue on for the time being.
All of this comes on the heels of Theater League’s most recent production of Ragtime, with its now notorious, furtively hidden twin synthesizers in place of a full orchestra, one in a series of increasingly frequent uses of financial corner-cutting by the Kansas City-based packager of national and regional tours that has resulted in emotions ranging from frustration to anger. To its credit, Cabrillo has never followed suit, and with its colorful and exuberant Children of Eden, it has once again filled the orchestra pit with superlative union musicians, led, for this production, by the eminently talented Cassie Nickols.
Children of Eden is one of Stephen Schwartz’s lesser known musicals, but as he has said on many occasions, it remains his favorite. The show’s Genesis (to use a suitable Biblical reference) goes back to 1985, when Schwartz developed the first incarnation of the show, as a one-hour oratorio for a St. Louis high school program. Titled “Family Tree,” it was met with enthusiastic response, and Schwartz, along with production designer Charles Lisanby, who came up with the concept, recruited director/playwright John Caird to expand the story and its original eleven-song score. A London production in 1991 proved premature as well as untimely (it hit just as the first Gulf War was beginning), and the three rewrote and revised the musical through a series of regional stagings, including one in California by the Riverside Civic Light Opera. In the two decades since its revamping, Children of Eden has yet to appear on Broadway; Schwartz attributes this to the cast size requirements, which includes a choir of Storytellers and a chorus of children to be the animals, something that would require Herculean concessions from Equity and other unions to make it economically feasible.
Children of Eden is one of many Broadway musicals based on Biblical themes, but probably is the most secularly written. Among these, it owes stylistic as well as thematic allegiances to Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, for its use of narrators and children’s choruses, Stephen Sondheim, for its unconventionally constructed songs, and to Two By Two, a 1970 musical based on Noah and the Flood, which had a score co-written by Richard Rodgers.
Children of Eden’s distinction is converting the stories of the Creation and the Flood and making them into a parable about family, with its themes of personal responsibility, rebellion, intellectual independence, and overcoming family dysfunctions. The central figure, God, who Schwartz calls “Father,” has some very ungodly and uniquely human characteristics. Like many fathers, he is autocratic and inflexible when confronted with disobedience from his children. The portrayal of Father in Children of Eden runs the gamut of interpretations, ranging from an omnipotent shaved head Jolly Green Giant type to those that are more accessible and relatable. Cabrillo’s Father, played by Norman Large, takes the latter approach. White-bearded and of reasonably ordinary stature, Large’s Father is almost your typical dad. He’s temperamental, but well-meaning and loving, despite instituting rigid restrictions on his children. Large’s voice isn’t the stentorian, booming baritone that you would expect from someone playing God, but he communicates his authority through passion and forceful intentions that he is doing what is best for his children.
Schwartz’s ingenious idea was to have the families in each act played by the same actors, so that parallels in their behavior could be clearly presented. The idea was that a pre-determined cycle of violence, established when Cain murders his brother Abel, is broken by a new character Schwartz introduces in the story of Noah in Act II, the slave girl Yonah, a descendent of Cain, who becomes a stowaway aboard the ark and prevents Noah’s son Japheth from repeating Cain’s crime.
Father is the one character who appears in both Act I and Act II. In Act I, Father’s children, Adam and Eve, are played by Kevin McMahon and Misty Cotton. McMahon does a fine job in the dual roles of Adam and Noah, but is faced with the first of several choices that has to be made by characters in the show, when Adam must choose between obeying Father or eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and being banished from Eden along with Eve. In Act II, McMahon (now playing Noah) and Large sing “The Hardest Part of Love,” which Schwartz says is the song that best espouses his philosophy of life: “But you cannot close the acorn / Once the oak begins to grow / And you cannot close your heart / To what it fears and needs to know / That the hardest part of love / Is the letting go.”
Misty Cotton displays an impressive array of emotional growth as Eve progresses throughout Act I. Initially giddy and curious, she is like a bouncy, lighthearted child as she curiously peppers Father with questions about things she sees in nature. Her voice is remarkably agile, which matures after Eve partakes of the apple. Cotton delivers a beautifully shaded performance in this act and is the act’s main focus. Cotton plays Mama Noah in Act II and remains in the background for much of the act, but reappears by leading the ebullient gospel shout “Ain’t It Good?” to close the show on a high note.
Ryan Driscoll plays the key role of Cain in Act I, and displays the first of several examples of his crystalline tenor when he seeks to find the lost garden over the hills in the song “Lost in the Wilderness.” Driscoll is a magnetic performer of prodigious talents who doesn’t need a spotlight to shine, although he is wise enough not to let his ability take over or obscure the other actors.
In Act II, Driscoll plays Japheth and is joined by the equally gifted Natalia Vivino, who plays Yonah. Vivino’s stirring vocal on “Stranger to the Rain” is one of the show’s musical highlights: strong and passionate and emotionally assertive. The song is one of Schwartz’s most powerful musical statements of his career (and his own favorite song of any that he has written), utilizing the metaphor of the unrelenting rainstorms to show her determination to survive: “I can spot bad weather /And I’m good at finding /Shelter in a downpour.” Like the unstoppable rain storms of the Flood, Vivino is a talent to be reckoned with. When Vivino and Driscoll perform their duet, “In Whatever Time We Have,” there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The production, which is beautifully directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld, is highlighted by Michelle Elkin’s extraordinary choreography in the ensemble numbers featuring an army of children portraying the animals of the Creation as well as the Ark, with whimsical and imaginative costumes created by Noelle Claire Raffy. But Elkin’s work is most enchanting in the Act I song, “In Pursuit of Excellence,” in which a coterie of black leotard-clad dancers, representing the Snake, tempt Eve with the fruit from the forbidden tree, and “Generations,” the jubilant, tribal-flavored chant that opens Act II. Christina L. Munich’s sensitive and colorful lighting design beautifully accented the individual scenes in accordance to the mood of each.
The cast also features impressive performances from Barnaby James as Abel and Ham, Paul DiLoreto as Seth and Shem, Kayla Bailey as Aphra and Elizabeth Adabale as Aysha. Tying the stories together are two exemplary singers playing the roles of the two main Storytellers, Kenneth Mosley and Katie Porter.
The large ensemble cast includes a pit choir of singers from seven local high schools and colleges as well as members of Cabrillo’s Kabrillo Kids farm team, a bottomless well of young talent from which Cabrillo regularly draws to develop and eventually replace performers who have moved on to other theatrical pastures.
Because of its universal themes of the foibles of parenting, Children of Eden is one of those transformative musicals that will affect anyone, whether you are a believer or doubter, and is the perfect show to mark Cabrillo Music Theater’s own almost Biblical resurrection during this season of Easter, when miracles traditionally happen.
See Children of Eden before it closes on April 17. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.