Midway through their historic 66th season, Circle Players, Nashville oldest continuing community theatre company brings Stephen Schwartz’s “Children of Eden” to the stage of Z. Alexander Looby Theatre with shows continuing through April 3.
Twenty years after the success of his 1971 Broadway hit “Godspell” and almost a decade before the spectacular “Wicked”, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz presented a musical with divine inspiration that delves in the subject of good and evil with 1991’s “Children of Eden”. While the latter never made it to the Great White Way, it did play London’s West End briefly. In spite of the show’s less than stellar debut, it has gone on to become a hugely popular show for regional theater companies across the country.
I have to admit, while I know of the show, I’d never seen it and was only vaguely familiar with a few of the show’s more popular tunes. While researching the show in preparation of attending Circle Players’ opening night, I discovered that the soundtrack for the original London run is highly sought-after by musical theatre aficionados as there were production issues that rendered the initial cd pressing inaudible. That said, perhaps it was fate that opening night of Circle Players’ production unfortunately experienced some audio issues of their own in the form of a mic worn by one of the lead actors that kept dropping out.
Unavoidable sound issues aside, Circle’s “Children” rallied on opening night, headlined by David Arnold, Lauren F. Jones, Wesley King, Brian Jones, Steven Griffin, Austin Querns and LaDarra Jackel, with thoughtful direction by Joshua Waldrep to present two of the most familiar bible stories, “The Creation” and “The Flood”. Based in scripture, yes, but under Waldrep’s direction, it goes beyond the scriptural lessons of good and evil, faith and temptation to highlight a truly beautiful depiction of the struggles between parents and their children.
Speaking of beautiful depictions, Jim Manning’s set might seem simple, with its patchwork quilt ascetic, but it’s that nod to the patchwork of humanity, the thought that every piece of a quilt is unique, but necessary to make up the whole. A visual reminder of the fabric of relatable circumstances that literally and figuratively weaves us all one with another.
Having seen David Arnold in a number of shows in recent years, including last year’s “Myth”, in which he played the god Zeus, playing Father in “Children of Eden” seems a natural progression. From his first commanding scene, Arnold does not disappoint. He’s majestic and loving, just as you’d image The Creator. Throughout the show, Arnold exemplifies the show’s recurring themes of the joys and disappointments of parenthood during such memorable and thoughtful numbers as “Let There Be” and “The Expulsion” which begins: “My children that I love so well, what wrong you do to me?” Arnold’s powerhouse bass vocals perfectly personify The Father.
Last seen on Circle’s stage as the overly excited pubescent speller in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, Wesley King stars as Adam during the first act’s Garden of Eden segment, proving he has matured in his theatrical skills as he takes on the role of God’s finest accomplishment. Among King’s best moments is Act 1’s “A World Without You” in which he must choose whether to leave the Garden of Eden with his beloved Eve or turn his back on her and remain at his Father’s side.
Speaking of Adam’s other half, Lauren F. Jones is ideal as Eve. Jones, of the aforementioned opening night mic issue, never missed a beat, literally powering through with aplomb and professionalism. Lesser professionals might have lost lines, missed choreography or simply froze from the pressure of a glitchy mic, especially considering the character Eve never leaves the stage for more than a few seconds at a time during the first 45 minutes of the show, but not Jones, she proved she, like the ultimate mother figure she portrays, has strength beyond measure. Luckily for me, I was seated near the front of the theatre, so I was still able to witness Jones emotional performance, most notably during “The Spark of Creation” and “In Pursuit of Excellence” during which she’s tempted by The Snake, blissfully, hissfully brought to life by Melissa Husebo with danceable assistance from Dwayne Benn, Delaney Gold, Samantha Blake and Shane Kopischke.
As if by a true miracle, Jones’ mic issue was corrected just in time for her final number, which coincidentally is the show’s titular tune, “Children of Eden” at the conclusion of Act 1.
Also of note during Act 1 are Steven Griffin and Austin Querns as Cain and Able. Previously seen on Circle’s stage in “American Idiot”, Griffin takes on the daunting task of performing “Lost in the Wilderness”, one of the show’s best-loved numbers. Save a few notes just beyond his range, Griffin turns in a fine vocal performance. Making his Circle debut, Querns’ Able lives up to his character’s name, able to evoke a sense of peace and kindness during his limited stage time.
Act 2 presents the story of Noah and his family as he prepares for the flood. A relative newcomer to the Nashville stage, Brian Jones couldn’t have a better on-stage partner than LaDarra Jackel. Together they’re completely believable as husband and wife, peppering their performances with a great balance of humor and heart. While Act 1 is blessed with great musical numbers, Act 2 seems a forerunner to the spectacle of musical theatre that, when the show was first conceived, hadn’t quite become the norm. A prime example of this comes in the parade of animals, or as any kid who’s ever attended Sunday school knows, it, the animals arriving 2 by 2. With costumes and character creations originally designed by Renee Luttrell and Gina Gomez for a production at nearby Cumberland County Playhouse, Circles’ creative team, including choreographer Stephanie Jones-Benton, costumer Rachel Gallup and puppet wrangler Jennifer Kleine, along with a truly talented ensemble, turn this moment into one of the show’s most gorgeous moments. Yes, it’s a bit like the processional of the animals during the “Lion King”, but keep in mind, “Children of Eden” preceded that show by about three years, so you gotta wonder, who begat whom?
Of Act 2”s notable numbers, it’s another Circle first-timer, Cassie Donegan who mesmerizes with “Stranger in the Rain”. The second act also features several numbers by what is billed The Storytellers Chorus featuring Laura Amond, Jarvis Bynum, John Kopischke, Alexis Marks, Lakendra Moore, Taylor Quinn and Jenny Taunton, along with Gabe Hoyer, Blake Holiday, Amanda Creech, Brittanie Graham, Samantha Blake, Morgan Amond and Cole Alsup, who make up the remainder of the ensemble, Circle Players has gathered together one of the most talented casts of seasoned veterans, talented performers and new talent to grace the stage of a Nashville company in some time.
“Children of Eden” continues it’s run with shows through Sunday, April 3 with performances Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Show tickets are $18 for Adults or $15 for Students and Seniors (60+). A special group rate of $10/ticket for groups of 10 or more is available. There’s also a special Pay-What-You-Can offer for Thursday performances. Click Here to purchase tickets.
Next up at Circle is “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” directed by Brittany Blaire Andersen with performances June 3- June 19. Click Here for more information.
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