Jacksonville University opened the enchanting family musical “Children of Eden” on March 3, 2016, with additional performances scheduled through March 13 in the Swisher Theatre on the campus of JU on North University Boulevard.JU’s production is exuberant theatre that leaves the audience in high spirits; an entertaining piece that is both enlightening and uplifting. “Eden” has been around since 1990. The musical is more likely to be offered by school and community theatres, rather than by professional theatres, as a large cast is required. And while it lacks hit songs, the musical has a rare combination of humor, tragedy, and hope.
“Children of Eden” is a retelling of the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah and the flood, adapted from the first nine chapters of Genesis. It follows the broad outline of the scriptural story, while providing a message of love and redemption. The book was written by John Caird; music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz, whose other musicals include “Wicked,” “Pippin,” “Working,” “Rags,” and “Godspell.”
In the opening scene, we first meet Father — God, portrayed by Casey Gulledge. With his powerful well-trained voice, he is picture perfect for this charismatic role. Matthew Robertson is excellent as Adam, and doubles back in the second act in the role of Japheth.
Douglas Anderson graduate Shelby Mosely is a JU sophomore and is marvelous as Eve. Ms. Mosely is also an accomplished dancer. Her Eve is a woman full of fire and curiosity who wants answers to her many questions. Why is there a fruit tree visible on the hill if eating the fruit it bears is forbidden? And why does Father put temptations in our way?
Director Kimberly Beasley has gone outside JU to cast Cain and Abel as small children. Dante Gonzales, a sixth-grader, plays Cain; his brother Aramis, a kindergartner, plays Abel. Both had lines and sang like professionals. Dante, who began acting at age four, already has an impressive resume of musicals under his belt. He will be traveling to London later this year, as he has been accepted as a student at the Royal Ballet’s international summer school.
The older brothers, portrayed by Jamil Abdur-Rahman as Cain and Zachary Polendo as Abel, provide fireworks as they reenact the tragedy outcome of their rivalry.
During Act II, Larry Glanton delivers a dramatic portrayal as Noah, supported by Lexi Links as Mama Noah. Matthew Robertson as Japeth and Sade Crosby as his chosen wife Yonah who bring conflict to the Ark because Noah is opposed to their union, sing a lovely duet than expresses their dilemma “In Whatever Time We Have.”
The musical if filled with a variety of musical styles, with some lyrics that are poignant and others that are amusing. Take, for example, the enticing lyrics of “The Pursuit of Excellence,” which featured five actors as a dynamic dancing and singing snake, portrayed by Larry Glanton, Angelika Robinson, Zoe Rosas, Adam Keller, and Charly Adams.
Director Beasley and Choreographer Victoria Miller used a large cast, who often filled the stage as storytellers, dancers, and backup chorus. Many of the singers and dancers stepped out for individual short solos. In these roles were Adda Laplaceliere-Fuenmayor, Melissa Allen, Dany Chaloub, Courtney Miller, Esther Olivo, Marlys Adjevi, Donesha Weatherspoon, Alana Fautley, Kirsten Hizer, Heather Ripley, Alycia Roselli, Carina Howard, Karolina Malota, Savanna McFarlan, Michaela Wells, and Carley Levy.
Appearing in featured roles were Adam Keller (Seth), Zachary Polendo (Shem), Kelly Wolfe (Aphra), and Emily Pate (Aysha).Several roles were double-cast and when you see this musical, some of the featured roles will be portrayed by Savannah Elam, Harrison Breault, Brandon Paris, Chris Robertson, Carley Levy, Andrea Villarino-Gonzalez and Charly Adams.
The pit musicians, hidden away under the stage, played with perfection and passion and were led by Musical Director Benjamin Beck, who was also on keyboard. The musicians included Joshua Kusmierz, Dennis Vincent, Kim Yorio, Joe Yorio, Anthony Akapnitis, Chris Smith, Jacob Schuman, Paul Jackson, Brendan Kohler and Austin Kelm.
Technical Director Brandon Lettow designed the sets. For the first act, huge boulders dotted the landscape. When Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, set pieces reflecting their primitive wilderness home were brought on stage. For the second act, a large wooden ark was lowered from the ceiling for Noah and his family and the animals.
Costume Designers, Anne Pinto and Whitney Abshear had Father dressed in a formal regal robe, with Adam and Eve in simple white attire. The Storyteller’s and dancers wore a range of clothing, much of it in neutral hues, interspersed at times with more colorful costumes.