If the creative team at Flat Rock Playhouse hesitated before launching a full-scale production of Children of Eden, the song-and-dance bonanza that opens July 27, it was only because mere mention of the musical’s name wouldn’t send the average theatergoer barreling through its medley. Compared to the sing-along favorites of past seasons, Children of Eden is novel enough to reduce even the most dedicated musical-theater geek to humming.
“It doesn’t have the name,” director Paige Posey says. “It’s not The King and I; it’s not West Side Story.”
But the show does feature a few names with fairly high “Q ratings” of their own: Adam. Eve. Cain. Abel. Noah. As a retelling of the first nine chapters of Genesis, Children of Eden is one of the more recent efforts to dramatize the Bible, an undertaking that, according to Posey, has “been part of theater since the beginning of theater.”
Children of Eden has never reached the Broadway stage, despite an impeccable pedigree: Stephen Schwartz, who infused Jesus and his disciples with pop-rock energy in Godspell, wrote the score, and the book is by John Caird, best known as director of Les Miserables. While some of Caird’s lyrics have been derided by critics as overly cutesy — when Adam and Eve greet the parade of animals that populate the Garden of Eden, they rhyme “What a grand array-o!” with “No wonder you rested on the seventh day-o!” — Schwartz’s music has generally been hailed as solid.
“It’s a really sweet show with a great message,” says Posey, who first directed Children of Eden at Mars Hill College. “It’s terrific for the whole family.”
The show’s decency has certainly contributed to its earning a slot among the top 20 musicals licensed by Music Theatre International, but perhaps what regional theater producers find most attractive is its near-total lack of production constraints. Unlike many other musicals, Children of Eden doesn’t dictate any set pieces. There is no required castle or streetscape to recreate; the script doesn’t even specify the design of a tree or an ark.
“It allows you some freedom,” Scene Designer Dennis Mulden notes. “When you have an ark, there are expectations, but you add a twist.”
As scene designer, Mulden was charged with following in some very big footsteps as he created a Garden of Eden from nothingness. He found his backdrop in a mix of colors and lighting effects.
“We designed a whole environment with textured surfaces of blue and gold,” Mulden says. “It could be clouds, it could be marble. And on these surfaces are symbols that relate to fathers or God, sort of subliminally there, not jumping out and yelling at you.
“It’s more abstract than what we usually do around here,” he admits. The line between scenery and costume is somewhat blurred as costumed puppeteers hoist animal figures onto the ark, a la The Lion King, and actors conjoin to form the snake that emerges from the Tree of Knowledge.
“The tree is a sculptural piece,” Mulden says. “It has a sense of sparkle and enticement. There are glowing apples and people in the branches.”
Even the most intricate production elements are intended to highlight the play’s simple truths, according to Posey. The show is essentially a meditation on the meaning of fatherhood, family and the cyclical nature of personal conflict.
“This is a chance to see Adam and Eve with their children and to see how unconditional love permeates their relationships,” Posey says.
Children of Eden will showcase members of the playhouse’s apprentice program, which provides career training for young theater professionals. On-stage apprentices will join the 35-voice choir that ensures the musical score thunders and roars in an appropriately Biblical manner.
“The music is amazing,” Posey says. “From a production spectacular standpoint, this show has all the bells and whistles.”
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]
Flat Rock Playhouse presents Children of Eden at its theater on Highway 25, three miles south of Hendersonville. The show runs Wednesday, July 27 through Sunday, Aug. 21, with performances Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:15 p.m. and on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:15 p.m. Tickets are $29, or $27 for seniors and students. Call 693-0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org for more information.