Sometimes, when I’m struggling to figure out what to say to begin a review, I take stock of the way I felt when I walked into the theatre. After all, what is a review, if not the equation of “expectation ± bias ± experience”? Sometimes you have to look around at the beautiful Eisenhower Theatre, the excited “one night only” theatre crowd, or the program full of the names of Broadway stars.
Or, I could just look two rows ahead and see Stephen Schwartz himself.
Clearly, Children of Eden in Concert was meant to be something special, a rare read of (to me) an underrated, underproduced show. It contains some of Schwartz’s very best songs, like “Lost in the Wilderness” and “The Spark of Creation” (the latter of which also contains one of his single worst lyrics). The structure could accommodate a sprawling, big budget production, or one with as few as nine performers in a more flexible “story theatre” type presentation.
Most importantly, Children of Eden is an excellent dramatic usage of two of humanity’s most enduring stories. By constructing a parable about God’s role as father to humanity, using his first children (in Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel), and the last he spoke to directly (Noah’s family), Eden manages a difficult task with aplomb, pulling relatable lessons about parenting and love from such well-known sources. That it does so without allowing a single character to fall into the role of villain (give or take a serpent) or have less than three dimensions (even God has his faults as a parent here) only serves to increase my admiration.
So, let’s talk about the concert itself then, shall we? As with many concert presentations, the star here is the musical ensemble, specifically the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the baton of musical director Brad Haak. Eden’s is a score that crosses over between lush, more traditional orchestrations and pop-ier rhythm section drivers, and Haak and his ensemble travel both modes equally well. There are no seams between the styles, the dynamic choices and musical phrasing all naturally extend from the score, and, combined with the sprawling National Broadway Chorus, this is the best I’ve ever heard Children of Eden sound.
Even though the Kennedy Center’s resident artists motivate the event, let’s be honest: it’s all about those marquee names when we’re buying the ticket. They’ve got a job to do in giving us the bang for our buck.
I’m generally one to tout the importance of an entire ensemble in a show, I also acknowledge this: in the case of Children of Eden, if you get your Cain/Japheth and your Eve/Mama Noah right, you’re pretty much good to go. As such, it’s no surprise that the two biggest names in this concert are those of Jeremy Jordan (Newsies, Smash, the upcoming film of The Last Five Years) and Ashley Brown (Broadway’s own Mary Poppins!) in those all-important roles.
Longtime readers of mine will know that I have, well, opinions about Jeremy Jordan. Despite that history, though, I’m so glad to name him a major highlight of this production. Beyond the fact that his is a remarkably strong pop-tenor voice, I found myself captivated by the energy of his performance.
His was a surprisingly economical one, incredibly relaxed. Acting and vocal choices emerged from his instrument, unencumbered by any sort of tension, second guessing, or mental walls. “Lost in the Wilderness” actually started off downright mellow, naturally building in drama as the scene did, and it was a choice that paid off considerably (his riff choices were also, to borrow a technical term, “sick”). His Cain and Japheth were simply “allowed to happen”, which has given me a new appreciation for what constitutes a star performance, and neither Cain nor Japheth ever lost my sympathy, even in their harshest moments. All this from a guy that once gave me a weekly desire to punch him in the face!
As for Ashley Brown, she was unquestionably the highlight of the evening. Ever engaged, her Eve was curious, charismatic, sharp-minded, and that’s without even getting to her vocals. I don’t like to spend time talking about quality of voices of performer’s at this level, because really, that should be a given. But hers is something special. So much power in her belt, such skill in flipping into her soprano range, and somehow always so much more in the tank when you think she’d hit the threshold. “Spark of Creation” set the evening off to its proper electrified start. Then “Children of Eden”, closing act one, was the stuff of which musical theatre dreams were made. Besides Brown, playing some of the script’s strongest moments before diving into the song, you also have the 37 member-strong National Broadway Chorus creating an utterly gorgeous a cappella sound.
In act two, Brown basically has one job: “Ain’t It Good”, Mama Noah’s jubilant 11 o’clock celebration of the end of the Ark’s journey. All that needs to be said about this is that it was the easy zenith of the entire event.
Along the way, the quintet of Josh Walden, Adam Hyndman, Ashley Spencer, Kay Trinidad, and Rebecca Naomi Jones played all the non-principle roles in the show, with Walden stepping up into Abel and Jones into Yonah, the catalyzing figure of act two. All five did very solid work, particularly Hyndman and Spencer’s soloing in “Generations”, and the group’s airtight jazz harmonizing as the Serpent in “In Pursuit of Excellence.”
You’d expect an actor playing God to provide a certain gravitas in a show, and Ron Bohmer anchors the whole production. Right now, he’s not really a “star” in the same way as Brown or Jordan, but he should be. Bohmer was my favorite thing about the Kennedy Center’s Ragtime revival because of the deep humanity he brought to that Father, and here, he brings a mountain of presence to this one, along with so many glints of fatherly charm and his golden baritone voice. He could effect Biblical wrath in one scene, channel an almost John O’Hurley-esque “effete rapscallion” energy the next, or embarrass his kids as a dorky dad in another. Bohmer’s star is bright, and I’ll be waiting to see what he does next.
Adam/Noah, I’ve found, is a pretty thankless track in Eden. It could deceptively be the hardest role to tackle in the entire show, or perhaps it’s just notoriously difficult to cast. For whatever reason, Charl Brown, himself a successful Broadway performer and a 2013 Tony nominee, doesn’t make the same successful impression as his co-stars. The style and range of Adam and Noah’s music don’t highlight his voice well, and he struggles to find the same strength of connection that Jordan, Brown, and Bohmer find.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s economical staging kept the action moving, highlighted the songs, and gave the drama its necessary “oomph”, utilizing Christian Boy’s riser set particularly well. In addition, her abstract “mood choreography” was beautifully realized by the dancers of Company E, with “The Return of the Animals” being a particular crowd pleaser.
Christian Boy’s concert set also successfully highlighted the entire ensemble while creating an interesting playing space, no easy task and worthy of commendation.
Robert Denton’s lighting similarly stayed out of the way and highlighted the assets on display. While his projections mostly did the same, there was a rather unfortunate “dove” projection near the end, the simplicity of which ended up eliciting unintended laughter from the audience and undercutting a fairly important moment in the story.
Finally, a bit of credit for Bobby Pearce, also working with a low key design, and managing to be nice and specific in his ability to delineate the eras of the two acts, all within the “Biblical robes” milieu.
With a musical work spanning the book of Genesis, multiple Broadway stars in the house, a full orchestra and chorus, and the composer himself seated close by, Children of Eden in Concert certainly set an expectation for epic theatre. Without question, the Kennedy Center has delivered.
We can only hope that, once again, a night full of stars bodes well for the future of Children of Eden.
Children of Eden in Concert was performed May 19, 2014 at The Kennedy Center.
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