An onstage cast of fifty multitalented musical theater performers, an absolutely exquisite production design, and above all what may well be Stephen Schwartz’s most gorgeous score (Wicked included) add up to a glorious Children Of Eden, now being given the kind of Grade-A professional staging you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere other than Cabrillo Music Theater.
Schwartz had already tackled the Bible in his maiden musical Godspell back in 1971 … and the rest as they say is theater history.
Still, while Godspell’s New Testament tale has been regionally revived more times than any Schwartz show other than perhaps Pippin, the Genesis-based Children Of Eden has largely remained the domain of school and community theater productions, just one reason to put Cabrillo’s epically staged revival on your must-see list.
And it’s not necessary to a follower of one of the world’s Three Great Religions to find yourself enchanted. Indeed, by celebrating the pursuit of knowledge over passive obedience, composer-lyricist Schwartz and book writer John Caird give Act One’s Eve and Act Two’s Cain a heroic status they have often been denied.
There is no denying whatsoever the absolute exquisiteness of songs like “The Spark Of Creation,” “Lost In The Wilderness,” “In Whatever Time We Have,” the title song, and just about any other Children Of Eden gem, particularly as performed by some of the most sensational singers on this or any coast.
Act One follows a sometimes too cutesy Adam (Kevin McMahon) and Eve (Misty Cotton) from the Garden they’ve been given by Father (Norman Large) to “The Wasteland,” where sons Cain (Ryan J. Driscoll) and Abel (Barnaby James) find themselves reenacting the same battle between one man’s curiosity and another’s complacency that got their parents kicked out of paradise in the first place.
Zooming ahead in time to Noah (McMahon), his wife Mama Noah (Cotton), and their sons Shem (Paul DiLoreto), Ham (James), and Japeth (Driscoll) as they build the ark they hope will allow them to survive the planned destruction of the godforsaken “race of Cain,” Act Two focuses on the forbidden love of Japeth for Cain-descended servant-girl Yonah (Natalia Vivino), one that echoes the obstacles that interracial, interfaith, and same-sex couples find still placed in their way by those of a less than tolerant bent.
That Children Of Eden manages to do all this while still appealing to its presumed target audience is just one reason this reviewer found himself quickly under its quietly subversive spell.
It helps enormously to have Cabrillo’s very own Lewis Wilkenfeld directing with his accustomed brand of assurance and flair.
It helps too that stage vets Cotton, McMahon, and Large have some of the finest pipes in this or any town, as do the production’s younger up-and-comers, particularly Driscoll’s gorgeous tenor and Vivino’s Broadway-ready soprano belt. (Watch out Idina!)
Elizabeth Adabale (Aysha), Kayla Bailey (Aphra), DiLoreto, James, Kenneth Mosley (Lead Storyteller), and Katie Porter (Lead Storyteller) are equally vocally gifted, and all-around terrific performers to boot, and so are triple-threat Storytellers Francesca Barletta, Jenny Hoffman, Janelle Loren, Zy’Heem “Z” Naheo, Rile Reavis, Christopher Reilly, Pablo Rossil, Rodrigo Varandas, Terri Woodall, and Kendyl Yokoyama as well as ensemble members Judy Domroy, Nicholas Ferguson, John Gaston, Heidi Goodspeed, and Susan Robb.
And where else but Cabrillo can you find a grand total of twenty precociously talented Kabrillo Kids like Carolina De los Rios, Audrey Devina-Goldberg, Natalie Esposito, Mia Gabbey, Gannon Hays, Samantha Hirschhorn, Julia Rose Kreinces, Kyle Lobenhofer, Calista Loter, Nathaniel Mark (Young Cain), Brielle Napue, Zoe Reed, Marcello Silva (Young Abel), Ashley Kiele Thomas, Taylor Linda Thomas, Lilly Thompson, Hattie Ugoretz, Jessica Wallace, Emerson West, and Megan Zide filling a stage?
Still, if there’s anything that makes Children Of Eden a must-see, it is a series of production numbers that perhaps only The Lion King can rival in spectacle and splendor featuring a multitude of animals from Aardvark to Zebra played by human performers sporting a variety of supremely imaginative costumes, masks, and puppets (provided by a variety of sources under designer Noelle Claire Raffy’s skilled supervision).
Just wait till you see species after species filling the stage in “The Naming” and “The Return Of The Animals,” two of the most spectacular production numbers ever, particularly as choreographed with abundant imagination and panache by Michelle Elkin, who gets bonus snaps for her ballet-meets-Fosse serpent dancers in “In Pursuit Of Excellence” and for a revival meeting-ready “Ain’t It Good” that lets Cotton show off some fancy footwork while belting to the rafters in a way that could give Effie White a run for her money.
The humungous Kavli Theatre stage has dwarfed scenic designs in many a past musical, but not Jeff Cason’s, one that fills the proscenium with streamers and lights and a great big ark, some exquisite projections (by Cason), and plenty of prop designer Alex Choate’s Biblical knickknacks, all of the above lit to Technicolor perfection by Christina L. Munich.
Sound designer Jonathan Burke does his crackerjack best as well, mixing cast vocals with Bruce Coughlin and Martin Erskine’s orchestrations performed by a Broadway-caliber Cabrillo Music Theatre orchestra under musical director Cassie Nickols’ expert baton.
In fact, the only thing I’d change about the production would be to excise ASAP the superfluous “Grandpa tells the grandkids a bedtime story” sequence that opens the show and then gets quickly and forever forgotten.
Children Of Eden is based on a concept by Charels Lisanby. Jessica Aguilar is production stage manager. Jack Allaway is technical director. Char Brister is crew captain.
There wouldn’t be a Children Of Eden without Cabrillo Music Theatre, just one reason to celebrate recent news that the Thousand Oaks treasure will be back in 2016-17 for more musical theater magic. Broadway show lovers and the triple-threat performers who won’t need to search elsewhere for a stage on which to shine can rejoice in equal measure.
Cabrillo Music Theatre, Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard, Thousand Oaks.
April 8, 2016
Photos: Ed Krieger