Question: Can a musical production offer too much of a good thing? Perhaps. In the case of this month’s pleasant Masquerade Theatre offering, less might well have been more. The show in question is “Children of Eden,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by John Caird. When the original production played London’s West End in 1991, poor notices and the war in the Persian Gulf held the run to less than three months, and quashed any plans for a Broadway production. Nevertheless, community productions of this Biblically-based tale (Act One tells of Adam and Eve, Act Two of Noah’s Ark) have continued to abound around the world.
This edition, directed by Masquerade founder, Phillip Duggins, and presented in the Zlikha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center, did have much to recommend it. Of course there was the usual exemplary choral work from the company’s talented ensemble. Much of the music was pleasing to the ear, at times even more so than Mr. Schwartz’ current Broadway blockbuster, “Wicked.” The problem lies in the various extended periods of not-so-fascinating dialogue which, in my view, bog down the production. The scenic designs of Corey Hartzog and Amy Ross give us a fine Garden of Eden and sturdy Ark (both well-lit by designer, David Gipson), and when we have the fine singing of the cast (musical director, Sam Brown), the whirling choreography of Laura Gray, and the exotic, Lion Kingish costumes of Kayleen Clements, the pacing is great, and the show is fun to see and hear. But three hours can be a long time if plodding dialogue gets the upper hand, and several high points in the show give the mistaken impression of the awaited grand finale.
Michael J. Ross brings a full, rich and operatic baritone to his impressive performance as the heavenly “Father.” He has fine vocal support from the cast in numbers like, “Let There Be,” and his solo skills shine in the poignant, “Father’s Day.” Adam (Brad Scarborough), and Eve (Kristina Sullivan), join Father and the ensemble “storytellers” for an impressive, “The Naming,” that featured the very creative animal costumes of Miss Clements. Sullivan gives us a thrilling, “Spark of Creation,” that evolves into Eve’s encounter with the belly-dancing serpent, as Laura Gray leads four emerald green fellow dancers in an undulating, “In the Pursuit of Excellence,” and the mellow sounds remind one of The Modernaires in the 1940’s.
While Scarborough appeared to be reaching a bit for the vocal range of “A World Without You,” he was in fine form for, “The Wilderness Family,” as we meet Adam’s sons, Cain (Mr. Hartzog), and Abel (Colton Berry). Hartzog’s rebellious Cain is a soaring vocal highlight in the “Lost in the Wilderness” duet with Mr. Berry, and Scarborough‘s fine voice anchors the rich, warm, “Close to Home,” quartet for Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel.
We move on to weak plot lines about the discovery of some stone monoliths, with rebellious Cain angry at learning Adam withheld knowledge that there were other people in the world. God comes to visit his “grandchildren,” Cain and Abel, and then curses Cain for the murder of his brother. Eve offers God a long and tedious plea for the return of exiled Cain, while the ensemble cast stands around her in stony silence for reasons unknown, but choral relief comes in the form of the Act One finale, “Children of Eden.”
Act Two opens with sensuous dancing, Technicolor costume splendor, and rhythmic Afro-Caribbean style music that all combined to bring excitement back to the staging as the cast of storytellers share their tale of the, “Generations.” Luke Wrobel brings his powerful voice to the role of Noah as he sings “The Gathering Storm.” Meanwhile, when not shouting booming commands, the heavenly Father, still dressed in the white nightgown of Act One, seems to wander about on an upper ramp looking a bit like a lost inmate in the asylum. We meet Noah’s wife, “Mama,” played with sensitive skill by Allison Sumrall. Her lovely voice in numbers like, “Spark of Creation,” delightfully punctuates the second act, culminating with her absolutely thrilling, “Ain’t It Good.” Other members of Noah’s family include Shem (Sam Brown), Ham (John Gremillion), Aphra (Beth Lazarou), and talented William Martin (as Japeth), who gives a wonderful rendition of, “In Whatever Time We Have,” in duet with Libby Evans. Miss Evans plays Japeth’s love interest, Yonah. In the most tender moments of this lovely song she gives a touching performance, but her voice is a bit strident when hitting the high notes. Yonah (oddly costumed in a distractingly bright red dress more suited to Mary Magdalene), is of the accursed line of Cain, and Noah therefore forbids her marriage to his son, Japeth. That plot line slowly propels the second act conflicts between God and the generations. But all ends well with the exquisite richness of the full company’s finale of “In the Beginning.” If only it hadn’t taken us so long to get to the end.
Final performances of Masquerade’s “Children of Eden” will be tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow, Sunday, at 2 p.m. in the Zilkha Hall of Houston’s Hobby Center located at 800 Bagby. For tickets and information call (713) 861-7045, or visit the website at www.masqueradetheatre.com.