Okay, I'll admit it -- I have a little problem with the God of the Old Testament, who can be seen as a vengeful all-powerful deity, ready to zap unbelievers into kingdom come at the slightest provocation. And my trepidation was not helped by the treatment he's given in the Stephen Schwartz musical, Children of Eden, now on stage at the Lake City Playhouse. The script comes across like the Disney animated version of the Book of Genesis, full of young adults defying their stern, unyielding parents and struggling with the balance between dreams and security. Schwartz's songs here lack the vibrancy and spontaneity of his earlier works (Pippin and Godspell), but the music is pleasant enough, even when there's nothing truly memorable about the score. Still, the Lake City cast and crew invest this mostly light-hearted romp with enthusiastic sincerity and some nice comic moments. While it's not paradise, neither is it a wasteland.
In this testament according to Schwartz, God -- appropriately called Father -- creates not only the world and the first human beings, but the first dysfunctional family, setting a behavior pattern in place that carries through the "Generations of Adam" enumerated in Act Two. Imagine God as a demanding, perfectionist, parental control freak; Adam as the son, created thoroughly in the old man's likeness; and Eve as the curious, naive, sometimes petulant teenage daughter who's bound to clash with them both, and you'll get the broad-brush view of the lead characters at the outset. By the end of Act One, Eve is the only character to exhibit any growth and understanding of herself, her family, her God, and her world.
If Children of Eden can be said to address any serious theme, it's the continuation of familial behavior patterns from generation to generation, particularly in the relationships between fathers and sons. As in the Bible stories that provided the show's inspiration, the men are the primary protagonists here, and their actions drive the story onward even as they remain stuck in old behaviors that pit family loyalty against personal development. Meanwhile, the women actually learn and grow while holding the families together.
In the beginning (as the Bible says), there was Father, played with a regal but human presence by Tom Stratton. He creates the world in the space of a single song, but finds it wanting despite its perfection. So, yearning to be loved and worshipped, he brings forth the first two human beings and guides them through the wonders of Eden. After a charming procession of the world's critters ("The Naming"), the first hint of trouble appears when Eve, her innocence and insatiable curiosity nicely captured by Sandy Gookin, asks Father about that one particular tree in the Garden.
Following several perfect but increasingly dull days in paradise, Eve meets up with the legendary snake, here presented as a serpentine chorus line. Six young actors - Keenan Bianchi, Dana Perry, Margie Randall, Yara Amberson, Jessica Kuhn and Beth Alderink - work well together to weave the web of temptation around Eve. We all know what happens next.
David Clemons portrays Adam as a faithful servant of the Father, striving to please while always struggling to understand Father's rejection of him. When he returns in Act Two as Noah, his struggle to understand remains, but he grows into the capacity to think and act for himself. Among the other characters, Jordan Gookin did a fine job with his portrayals of Cain and Noah's youngest son, Japeth. (Can I resist saying that Cain was played ably?) Gookin brought to life the biblical bad boys' enthusiasm and passion without turning either one into an ogre.
The four-piece band performed well throughout, although they often overwhelmed the soloists; only Dana Perry, in her Act Two appearance as Yonah, the wife of Japeth, had the pipes to sing over the instruments. And Sandy Gookin did do her best to bring the house down on the show-stoppin' quasi-spiritual, "Ain't It Good."
Even though the Old Testament Father is a controlling SOB and the First Family of humankind do their best to live up to his example, Children of Eden offers the possibility of growth and redemption. By the end, even God has learned a lesson or two, and the show ends on a rousing, uplifting "can't we all just live together" note of hope. The show runs almost three hours, including the intermission, but it's a mostly pleasant diversion.