Stephen Schwartz’ career has been overwhelmed by the success of Wicked but the fact is he is a remarkable composer, a man who has real skill at weaving melodies that enchant while also revealing emotional depth. Children of Eden is not well regarded, by critics or audiences, but as this revival at the Union Theatre clearly shows, any issues do not lie with Schwartz’ contribution. His score is bright and quite beautiful and when given full value, glorious tunes burst in the spotlight; it ensures the experience of seeing Children of Eden is very rewarding.
It used to be that books, films and plays, including musicals, were unafraid to delve into the pages of the Bible for rich and resonant stories, usually ones full of moral questions. By and large, that time has passed and unless the religious material is mocked (Book of Mormon springs to mind) it does not feature much in modern mainstream entertainment, except perhaps in the odd glossy television spectacle. Even the religious aspects of big hits like The Sound Of Music or Guys and Dolls get short shrift mostly.
So it is not really a surprise that the book of Children of Eden, with its roots firmly in the well known sections of the Bible involving Adam and Eve and then Noah and the Flood, is greeted as risible by critics and audiences. John Caird, who wrote the book, does not aim for greatness here; rather the narrative proceeds in a naïve way which can be fun, but also a trifle cloying.
Still, if you accept it as a tale of wonder and joy, of chance and consequence, of love and sacrifice, of parents teaching children how to live and love and children returning the favour, it is a refreshingly uncomplicated, although occasionally mawkish, narrative and it holds attention well, as a whole probably better than Godspell.
As ever, it is the directorial vision and the skills and commitment of the cast which count for the most in a revival, and now playing at the Union Theatre is Christian Durham’s production of Children of Eden which is beautifully thought through, where simplicity and honesty take to the fore, as well as some fun with puppets.
The cast are all bright, pretty persons, and they bring a sense of new life wonder to everything they do. No one will be surprised if many of them appear in future casts of The Book Of Mormon, so overwhelming is the wholesomeness they display and so honed are their skills.
Durham makes some inspired choices given the very one-level playing area the new Union now provides. Much is created from little: Designer Kingsley Hall creates a dappled forest feel for the Garden of Eden with just a few large brown leafs and Nic Farman’s lighting provides the rest of the sense of sensual danger; Noah’s Ark is ingeniously summoned by just a few planks of wood adhered to the back wall and a ceremony involving the final piece being laid; the 40 days and 40 nights of torrential downpour occur under the watchful eye of small umbrellas and to the relentless sound of pounding rain.
This is definitely an occasion when less proves to be spectacularly more. When the animals are drawn to the Ark, there is skilfull use of puppets and soft toys – these instantly convey the sense of variety in the fauna as well as Noah’s family’s first rush of exhilaration and fear as they encounter them. Equally, the inherently difficult scene with the seductive snake is well handled, with simplicity and directness the key.
Hall’s costumes are bright and breezy too, providing a sense of a timeless time, as well as deftly differentiating who was who in a company where doubling up was almost constant. One could quibble that it might have been more realistic to present Adam and Eve as naked new-borns but Hall’s costumes managed to make the same point sans genitalia. And, in turn, this tied in and served the open, naïve and very charming recounting of the apple and the exit from Eden.
Integral to the unfolding narrative and a clear understanding of allegiances and friendships, Lucie Pankhurst’s choreography proves the lifeblood of Children of Eden. Imaginative, energetic, peaceful in parts, sensual in others, the dances propel the story, shift focus when needed and provide scene changes of eccentric charm. Occasionally, a performer might be slightly too wacky in their performance, slightly too wild in their execution, but usually these instances make sense for their characters even if they do not sit well with the immediate overall scene.
As Children of Eden played out, one old not help but wonder if more power might be gained from the work of there were subtler changes made: if it were Adam who led Eve into error, if Noah was a woman, if Yonah was a man, if Father was Mother. The underlying issues would the same mostly but the assumed patriarchal hetero-normative hierarchy might be challenged in fresh ways – given you are coping with the notion of the whole of the planet’s fauna calmly sitting on an Ark, it doesn’t seem a stretch to look at other, frankly less absurd, possibilities. A dose of relevant political thought might make critics look anew at the show as a whole.
But one area that does not require updating or change is Schwartz’ richly tuneful and achingly melancholic score. Children of Eden sees Schwartz’ composition skills finely honed and full of harmonic and melodic invention and freshness. Numbers such as Father’s Day, A World Without You, Lost in the Wilderness, Children of Eden, Stranger to the Rain, In Whatever Time We Have and The Hardest Part Of Love ripple and burst with musical challenge and pleasure.
The four piece band led by Inga Davis-Rutter provides a haunting and suitably mystical support to the singers and, for the most part, the balance is good. Lyrics are lost occasionally, but the sense of the words is never obscure for long.
The company makes Schwartz’ music passionate and exhilarating; the notes clear and clean and the sense of the colour of the music strong and pervading. The harmonies are high and interwoven, with great texture in the blend of voices. Much of the music is set high but there is no struggle – and when the deeper, darker notes come, they too get good value.
This is as nicely sung a musical as any I have heard in a Union Theatre space. Sometimes the beauty of the sound (combined with the somewhat oppressive heat in the auditorium) makes it tempting to sit back, eyes closed, and simply soak up the almost cathedral choir like vocal beauty.
But you cannot lose yourself in the music for long, because Durham’s production is chock full of detail and action, much of it too good to be missed. There are many simple but quite affecting elements to the staging, touches that provide understanding about character and situation. Just the way Noah’s family react to the arriving animals is quite revealing, for instance. This is not all about Pankhurst’s choreography, although that provides a solid backbone, but it is about the acting skills of the company.
Natasha O’Brien is particularly good as Mama Noah and her maternal warmth and strength is certainly a match for the flood. She is slightly less convincing as Eve, though undeniably magnetic and alluring, but it’s a harder ask as everyone has their own idea of what Eve should look and sound like. But her work with the Snake was excellent and there was no faulting her commitment or vocal strength.
Joey Dexter, angelic in form and vocally, particularly in the first Act, is a beguiling and charismatic Father. He has precisely the right detachment, the incense-laden aloofness, the querulous superiority of a God and he is a rainbow of expressive excitement in the face of creation and the responsibilities that follow. Durham forces Dexter into sulk mode in the second Act, which works well enough, but it might have been better to let Dexter’s Father learn from his sons and daughters in a reflection of the way Noah learns from his.
Stephen Barry seems to be enjoying himself immensely as the puppy-dog Bimbo that is Adam, his gormless expression as mildly irritating as his impressive well-toned physique. But it is a combination that works well and the relationship between Barry and O’Brien in the Garden of Eden is tender and affecting. It is fascinating to see the relationship evolve.
Barry is most impressive as Noah, bringing a guarded grandeur to the occasion, both in the manner of his bearing and in the approach to the music. The puppy-dog is gone; the strict head of household and servant of God is very clear. The Hardest Part Of Love, Barry’s duet with Dexter’s Father, is very memorable indeed. Again, Barry and O’Brien work well together as husband and wife, and both seem at home as parents to their motley crew of inter-related children. Their voices are strong and easy to enjoy.
Verity Burgess and Gabriel Mokake do excellent work as the storytellers; their movement and voices radiating surprise and suspense. Nikita Johal shows off her impressive voice in the difficult role of Yonah and she charts the sadness of the girl’s choices clearly and with insight. Kris Marc Joseph, Susie Chaytow and Samantha Giffard provide solid support in a range of roles; Chaytow is especially touching as the pregnant Aysha.
In the double roles of Cain/Japheth and Abel/Ham, Guy Woolf and Daniel Miles carry much of the emotional wallop of Children of Eden. Both are terrific.
Woolf is remarkable in carving out two quite distinct rebels. His Cain is quite different from his Japheth and although each come into conflict with their father, the reasons for that and the results are very different. Woolf is especially good in confronting Barry’s Noah about his love for Yonah and how hurting her is the same as hurting him. Both Woolf’s performances are riven with grief and unfairness, but he is especially strong as Japheth. His work in Lost In The Wilderness and In Whatever Time We Have is high calibre indeed.
If one performer sums up the ebullience and sheer excitement of this revival of Children of Eden, it is Daniel Miles. He has a mercurial infectiousness which enlivens each scene in which he appears. Mostly, he does not stand out too much (a couple of twirls are slightly too exuberant every now and then) but always he adds texture to the proceedings in which he is involved. His Abel is sweet and kind; his Ham, loving, earnest and devoted. He plays brother to Woolf effortlessly and perfectly and together they make for some touching and involving theatrical moments. Miles can dance well and he has a glorious voice too.
This is the kind of joyous work for which the Union Theatre, justly, has an excellent reputation. The production works within its budgetary restraints and is inventive in many ways. The assembled talent is very impressive and the goals of the creatives smart and aligned. With one stroke, Durham and his team have breathed new life into Children of Eden.
Ain’t it Good? asks one of Schwartz’ songs. Yes, it is.