2nd Star embarks on 20th season with a lively walk through 'Eden'

After winning five Washington Area Theatre Community Honors awards and a Ruby Griffith Award for production excellence last season, the 2nd Star theater troupe is opening its 20th season with a production of Stephen Schwartz's biblical musical "Children of Eden."

Although its January 1991 London premiere received mixed reviews and closed after three months, "Children of Eden," with book and libretto by John Caird, has become such a popular offering in community theater circles that its initial struggles are a faded memory.

The 2nd Star production does justice to Schwartz's brilliant, edgy score, and features a dynamic cast that presents characters of biblical proportions. It also reflects the commitment of talent and time by crews on- and off-stage.

Upon entering Bowie Playhouse, the audience is drawn into an exotic paradise on stage. Initial darkness comes alive with starlight, synchronized to a choral accompaniment of "Let There Be" to signal the wonder of creation.

Regular patrons of 2nd Star are accustomed to Jane Wingard's set design artistry, from concept to painting and decorating. Here the construction crew spent countless work hours creating panels in flying layers. Wingard seems to embrace the Bible's grand scale.

Equally comfortable dealing with challenge, lighting and sound designer Garrett Hyde paints compelling scenes — an Eden with soft morning light, a harsh wasteland and a heavenly rainbow. Hyde signals danger with warning light as characters approach the tree of forbidden fruit, and intensifies the story's drama with vivid lightning and roaring thunder.

Vince Musgrave, in his 2nd Star directing debut, embraces Schwartz's emphasis on a strong family dynamic and its relevance to audiences. Musgrave also serves as choreographer — a role he assumed most recently in 2nd Star's award-winning "Hello Dolly." This time around, his efforts add bright energy to the story of creation through a lively dance troupe.

Matching the dance ensemble is a strong chorus of singers, adding substance to "Let There Be" and later rising to strong heights in the title song. Music director Joe Biddle leads the 2nd Star orchestra in a realization of Schwartz's brilliant score.

Beyond its biblical foundation, this is a story of family headed by a caring father. Act 1 tells the creation story of Adam and Eve and the banishment from the Garden of Eden. Together they build a life with Cain, Abel and Seth — until rebellious Cain explores a distant ring of stones at the end of the first act.

Act 2 is the story of Noah, with the voice of God directing him to build an ark and collect animals before 40 days and nights of rain drowns the earth. Noah and his wife also confront son Japheth's problems choosing a wife, unaware that he loves Yonah, a descendant of Cain.

In this ensemble piece are vocal standouts, most notably E. Lee Nicol, who plays both Adam and Noah. Nicol shines in Adam's "The Naming," which recounts the naming of animals, and also in his duet with Eve, "A World Without You." As Noah, Nicol musically defines this biblical character as he expresses willingness to let go in "The Hardest Part of Love."

Co-star Caelyn Sommerville is stellar as Eve and Mama Noah, bringing grace and warmth to Eve's "Spark of Creation" and Mama Noah's joyful "Ain't it Good?"

Other noteworthy performers include 16-year-old Austin Dare, a veteran of 2nd Star's "Hello Dolly" and cast here as Cain, delivering the powerful "Lost in the Wilderness." South County High School 11th-grader David Starnes, another "Dolly" veteran, plays Abel and Japheth.

Starnes displays vocal prowess in "In Whatever Time We Have," a duet with Yonah, played by Broadneck High School junior Alexandra Baca. Making her 2nd Star debut, Baca's compelling performance includes a dramatic "Stranger to the Rain."

Cast as Father is Chris Overly, who performed opening night but was under the weather, thus making a review inappropriate. He reportedly did not perform the rest of opening weekend, but is expected finish the show's run.

Continuing at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 25, "Children of Eden" is on stage at Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park, 16500 White Marsh Park Drive. Tickets can be purchased by calling box office at 301-805-0219 or online at 2ndstarproductions.com.

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