The Old Testament meets Dear Abby in the current show at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.
"Children of Eden" is the latest Bible-inspired musical from Stephen Schwartz, who should have quit while he was ahead with "Godspell."
Where "Godspell" -- a Broadway hit in the early 1970s that drew its inspiration from the New Testament -- was funky, fresh and snappy, "Children of Eden" is dreary, stale and way too long.
Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics for "Children of Eden" and collaborated with British director John Caird on the book.
The show merges several Old Testament stories with a 1990s view of family life lifted straight from prime time television.
The result is an uneven musical that takes 2 1/2 hours to hammer the audience with the astoundingly unoriginal notion that
children must make their own decisions, and parents must let them.
In this case, God is the parent. Adam, Eve and their progeny, including Noah and his family, are the children.
There is great drama in the Old Testament -- creations, miracles, tests of faith, murders and smitings aplenty -- but Schwartz and Caird waste it.
In the context of their musical, the children's choices seem obvious and entirely reasonable, while God comes off as a controlling parent who would earn an admonition from advice columnist Abigail Van Buren to back off and mind his own business.
This makes for a boring Bible story and a tedious musical.
Though ill-conceived, "Children of Eden" is redeemed somewhat the music, a jazzy pop mixture reminiscent of Schwartz's earlier work -- "The Baker's Wife," "Working" and music from the Disney animated versions of "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," as well as "Godspell."
The gospel rocker "Ain't It Good?" near the end of the second act, is a toe-tapper.
In the first act, "The Spark of Creation" and "In Pursuit of Excellence" -- numbers that deal with Eve's temptation -- give the audience a glimpse of what might have been.
If the entire show -- or even a significant part of it -- had the wit, emotion and polish of those two numbers, "Children of Eden" would be a winner. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
But Toby's does a serviceable job presenting this subpar mater- ial. Directors Toby Orenstein and Carole Lehan do an excellent ++ job of using Toby's small stage and managing their large cast.
More than 20 actors are on stage during the big production numbers, but the action never seems chaotic or disorganized. For the most part, cast members make their entrances and exits smoothly and unobtrusively.
As befits Toby's forum, the sets are minimalist -- boulders, a three-sided hut, a bench, the barest outline of a ship's cabin to represent Noah's Ark. Set changes are smooth with the exception of one awkward moment in the middle of the first act, when a stone bench/table drops from the ceiling.
This is a serious accomplishment for a theater-in-the-round such as Toby's. The audience can see whatever happens with the sets.
As is common with dinner theater, the actors display varying degrees of skill. In this production, the poor performances are confined to a few members of the chorus who sing off-key and whose dancing lacks the snap of their cast members.
Gary Best, in his 15th show at Toby's, mines depth from the roles of Adam and Noah. He has a fine, deep singing voice and ably uses it in conjunction with facial expressions and body language to convey his characters' torment.
Tamarin Ythier, in her first performance at Toby's, gives a take-no-prisoners portrayal of Eve and Noah's wife. Her Eve is the most realistic, well-rounded of all the musical's characters, thanks to Ythier's finely nuanced performance.
Braxton Peters, as the annoyingly whiny God character, is less effective than his co-stars, but he also has less to work with,
thanks to Schwartz and Caird. Unlike Best and Ythier, who never drop a note, Peters' voice frequently gets lost. This may be more because of the sound system than his talents, but either way it detracts from the story, as what God has to say is fairly important to the story line.
Janine Gulisano, as the Snake and Yonah, follows up on the promise she showed as Maria in Toby's production of "West Side Story." She has serious stage presence, and she uses her clear voice and expressive face to wring more out of her characters than the show's creators could have written into the parts.
Other standouts are Jon Bell as Cain and Shem, John Guzman as Seth and Ham, Michael Omohundro as the Snake and a Storyteller, and Ben Franklin as the doomed Abel and lovestruck Japheth.
"Children of Eden" is billed as a family event, but there is not much to recommend for children younger than about 8, except for one number in Act II, when Noah loads animals onto the ark. Actors in fanciful costumes flood the stage for a few charming moments.
4 That is not enough to salvage the show, however.
It is disappointing that Schwartz wrote such a lackluster piece of musical theater, and that Toby's chose to perform it.
"Children of Eden" runs through Valentine's Day at Toby's. The theater's next show, beginning on Feb. 18, is "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."
Pub Date: 12/10/98