Religion often portrays God as a loving parent, benevolent, always striving to see the good in his children, infinitely patient with their faults. But being a parent is never easy. Further, if we are created in God’s image, then God is as human as we are, and subject to human faults and foibles… and similar problems with his children. This appears to be the point of the musical we saw last night at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Northridge (FB), where the Theatrical Repertory of Our Lady of Lourdes (TROLL) (FB) presented the musical “Children of Eden” (music and lyrics by Steven Schwartz (FB), book by John Caird, based on a concept by Charles Lisanby, which in turn, although uncredited, was based on a concept by, umm, God (or whomever wrote the book of Genesis)).
TROLL Players is a new production group to us. We learned about this production when Meggan Taylor/FB, who is active in our former synagogue Temple Beth Torah, posted on Facebook about two members of the Temple choir (John and Tina Scott, who are also members of the co-located Episcopal Church choir) being in this production. “Children of Eden” is a title of interest to me; it is one of those shows I’ve heard but never seen. So I was pleased to learn of this group (even thought it is an amateur group) and secured tickets to the production. I’m glad I did, and will look for future productions of other shows I’ve never seen.
Back to “Children of Eden” (COE). As I noted above, COE is a musical by Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist of Godspell, Pippin, and the current juggernaut, Wicked. It has never been produced on or off-Broadway. It was originally written for a high-school theatre camp. Schwartz subsequently adapted it for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but it never transferred to the US. It was revived by Papermill Playhouse in NJ, and has been popular with non-Broadway companies. However, I haven’t seen it produced in Los Angeles before.
COE tells the story of the creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah from the Book of Genesis. In doing so, it falls into the small number of biblical musicals (others being The Apple Tree, Two by Two, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and, umm, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar… surprisingly, I couldn’t think of any Abrahamatic or post-Joseph through pre-Jesus musicals). The first act focuses on Adam and Eve; the second on Noah. I’m not sure a synopsis of that story is really necessary — however, if you want a synopsis of how the show presents the story, I refer you to either the MTI show page or the Wikipedia page. The basic message of the show focuses on the nature of the relationship between fathers and their children. Specifically, the message appears to be that despite the best efforts of fathers to protect their children, children will discover their own life and eventually separate. They will disobey, and they will learn to pay the consequences.
A problematic aspect of COE is how it portrays the characters (which was especially jarring seeing how the performance venue was the church’s parish hall). God comes off rather badly — he’s a parent who holds grudges, who tars an entire family branch based on the sins of the parent, who doesn’t always have unconditional love for his children, and who has problems communicating with his children. I’m aware this is in the source material as well :-), but the show seems to highlight it as well. It also seems to highlight — at least in the first act — a problematic portrayal of Eve as the reason for the downfall. Again, this is a common liturgical theme (especially in Christianity), but I wonder if these thematic aspects are one reason the show was problematic for critics. Personally, I found these aspects interesting: the show not only refreshed my knowledge of the book of Genesis, but made me think and question about the material and what it says. This is something theatre does very well. It would be interesting to see this show paired with a church-led discussion of this subject and the portrayal — good theatre can stimulate great discussion of themes.
The music of the show is wonderful. The show is mostly sung through, and some songs are particular favorites — “In Pursuit of Excellence” and “Ain’t It Good” being two I particularly like. Although I was familiar with the story and the music, I found it interesting to hear the songs in the context of the book. Many of the songs are choral; this show was designed for a large group. As always, when I hear this show in the future, I’ll think of this production.
Speaking of this production: For an amateur production, this was very good. I don’t expect an amateur production to have perfect singing or execution — the cast and crew just haven’t always had the training. Amateur productions are the first in a series up the ladder to fully professional productions. As such, any comments below should be understood in the context of helping the performers to improve, not to denigrate their hard work.
First and foremost, the performance (i.e., straight acting) in this show was wonderful. Although a few of the younger folks looked a little confused, most of the actors on stage were having fun with this show. I particularly enjoyed watching the faces of the storytellers during the show and how they reacted on the various numbers. Also strong was the expressiveness of the leads in the various segments. I’m never sure how much of this is what the actor brings, and how much of this is what the director brings out; I do believe that in a good production you can’t distinguish between the two as the performance is that natural and organic. In any case, this show had strong performances; in particular, I still remember the performances of Kassandra Lee Scott/FB as Eve/Mama Noah, Joy Walker/FB as Yonah, Greg Walker/FB as “Father” (God), Philippe Martinez/FB as Adam/Noah, Trevor Alkazian/FB as Cain/Japheth, and Roger Ritenour (FB) in numerous small roles. I’m sure some measure of the credit for the performances goes to the director, Deb Owen (FB). One final performance note: an interesting addition to this show was the sign language performance of Darlene Wittman.
Also strong in this production was the dance. This was particularly noticeable during the return of the animals — the movement and the characterizations of the animals made any particular costumes unnecessary (I particularly enjoyed the apes and elephants). In general, the movement and dance throughout the show was great. Credit here goes to the choreographers — the aforementioned Kassandra Lee Scott/FB and Roger Ritenour (FB). Kayley Norman/FB was the dance captain.
What makes a musical, however, is the singing and the music. A few of the performers were very strong and blew me away with the quality of their performances — especially considering that the program identified no vocal training. In this tier I particularly want to note Kassandra Lee Scott/FB as Eve/Mama Noah and Joy Walker/FB as Yonah. Both were just wonderful. Also strong was Roger Ritenour (FB) as the head of the snake, Christy Nevarez/FB as one of the storytellers on “Generations”, and whomever was the second segment of the snake (I’m guessing Emily Sawdey/FB). However, this was an amateur production, and most of the voices were more at the 85%-90% level — still very good, but with the occasional problem. These voices could be outstanding with a little more work. In this tier were the other leads: Greg Walker/FB as “Father” (God), Philippe Martinez/FB as Adam/Noah, Trevor Alkazian/FB as Cain/Japheth. All had moments when you could hear that the quality in the voice was there, and all were strong when combined with their acting performances. I’ll also note that the ensemble as a whole was wonderful in the choral numbers.
Overall, the cast for the show was as follows: Trevor Alkazian/FB (Storyteller, Cain/Japeth), Amy Brophy (Storyteller), Joshua Celaya/FB (Storyteller, Seth/Shem), Jim Cordi (Storyteller), Giovanni Di Nova-Daly (Storyteller), Jo Di Nova-Daly/FB (Storyteller, Snake), Olivia Di Nova-Daly (Storyteller), Jonathan Engstrom/FB (Storyteller, Abel/Ham), Kim Flamma (Dove), Noah Gulbransen (Storyteller, Young Cain), Nicki Heyd/FB (Storyteller), Ferra Kochanek (Storyteller), Matthew Krzewinski (Storyteller), Philippe Martinez/FB (Storyteller, Adam/Noah), Dan Meehan (Storyteller, Snake), Patty Miller (Storyteller), Christy Nevarez/FB (Storyteller), Kayley Norman/FB (Storyteller), Mark Pasano/FB (Storyteller), Roger Ritenour (FB), Shaina Sarmiento (Storyteller, Young Abel), Emily Sawdey/FB (Storyteller, Snake, Aphra), John Scott (Storyteller), Kassandra Lee Scott/FB (Storyteller, Eve/Mama Noah), Tina Scott (Storyteller), Graciela Tiu (Storyteller), Cassie Walker (Storyteller, Snake), Greg Walker/FB (Father), Joy Walker/FB (Storyteller, Yonah), Darlene Wittman (Storyteller, Intercessor), Holly Lynn Wolcott/FB (Storyteller), Kiyoko Ana “Kiki” Zushi (Baby Eve), and Stephanie Alkazian Zushi/FB (Storyteller, Seth’s wife, Aysha).
The small on-site orchestra was under the musical direction of Marcella Carmona (FB), and was generally very good. It consisted of a keyboard, accordion, flute/piccolo, drums/percussion, harp, bass, and clarinet/saxophone/french horn. The only problematic instrument was the accordion, which was either too loud or slightly out of tune … for in a couple of numbers it overpowered.
Turning to the technical side of things: Some things here worked quite well. The scenic design of Hugh Fitch/FB was very simple: some risers, a plain backdrop, a few props. This worked will with the strong performances to establish the mood. I’m curious how this would be staged in a venue with more to spend on sets and such — would an attempt to have more realistic sets overpower the show? The costumes by Mary Engstrom were similarly simple: gowns or tan outfits with the occasional colorful sash or overshirt. They served to identify but not be overly realistic, allowing the performances to create the character. However, the costumes came together in the final scene with the rainbow. As for the more technical aspects: lighting and sound, which were under the design of Stephanie Alkazian Zushi/FB… the lighting worked reasonably well (and I was impressed by the number of lights the parish had). There were some good background projections, and the colors were OK. The follow spots were occasionally a little off. Sound was much more problematic, with the occasional static and more significant muddiness that impacted the quality of the performers voices. Hopefully, they can get a local sound engineer to come in and tune their setup. Stephanie Alkazian Zushi/FB also served as combat choreographer and technical director — a busy young women. Dolores Bator was the house manager, Brittany Cahill was the stage manager, and Katie Soukup/FB was in charge of the box office (and got us our tickets, and my wife a hard candy when she really needed it).
Two last things I noticed about the Parish Hall, which struck me as oddly funny. First, both Jesus and the Virgin Mary are chained to the building (well, their statues are). Are they afraid they are going to leave in the middle of the night? (Actually, they are chained so they don’t fall in an earthquake, but it was just an odd juxtaposition, when you think about it). Secondly, there was a payphone in the hall with a little yellow sticker above it noting some free calls that could be made. The first two made me laugh: Press *3 to receive God’s blessing, press *4 if you need cash now :-).
There is one more performance of “Children of Eden” at Our Lady Of Lourdes: today at 2pm. Tickets are available at the door. Our Lady of Lourdes is located at 18420 Kinzie St, Northridge, 1 block south of Lassen just off Reseda. Tickets are $15 donations.
[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]
Upcoming Theatre and Concerts: This evening is a a release party for a Kickstarted-CD by Big Daddy. Next weekend is very busy with three shows: Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) on Friday; “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend brings “Falling“ at Rogue Machine on Sat November 30, and may also bring the concert “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” at REP East (FB) on Sunday December 1 [I’m unsure about this — on the one hand, it supports REP East… but on the other hand, it’s Christmas music]. December will start with “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School on Friday, December 6. We then leave for New Orleans and the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). When we return we have an interesting play, “Sherlock Through the Looking Glass“, at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). December, as currently scheduled, concludes with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Looking into January…. nothing is currently scheduled, but it will likely bring “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“, which is the first show of the REP East (FB) season, running 1/17 through 2/15/2014… and the end of the month will bring “Forever Plaid” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Of course, we look forward to seeing you at ACSAC for the wonderful training opportunities there. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.