As befits a musical based on the biblical book of Genesis, Children of Eden starts In the Beginning. Yet in discussing the Timber Lake Playhouse's current presentation of the show, it seems more appropriate to start at the end, because the curtain call - arriving more than two-and-a-half hours after the opener - appears to be one of the few sequences in which the performers understand exactly what's expected of them.
Of course, they can hardly be blamed for that. I dutifully attended Sunday school, and know my Bible stories, and saw another production of Children of Eden a few summers back, and I sure didn't get what was happening here. Really, this shouldn't have been so trying. A musical staging of the Old Testament tales of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah's Ark, composer Stephen Schwartz's and book writer John Caird's offering doesn't feature much depth or nuance, and is about as subtle as most children's pageants. Still, this deeply sincere piece boasts a fair degree of imagination and some lovely harmonies, and any grade-schooler with even remedial biblical awareness should be able to follow the narrative; the characters may be thin and the moralizing heavy-handed and Schwartz's ballads mostly drippy and unmemorable, but at least Children of Eden is coherent.
Oh, not here it isn't. In general, it's dangerous for a stage director to impose his or her own representational concept on a show that already works just fine without it, as audiences are oftentimes so busy deconstructing the added symbolism and metaphors that they lose sight of what the play is actually about. But in director/choreographer James Beaudry's outing, there are so many concepts and storytelling conceits flying around that I, for one, watched most of Thursday's production with my jaw agape - and not, in a Timber Lake rarity, because I was floored by the on-stage talent. As is proved by the curtain call, talent is most definitely present; with that joyous spitfire Sophie Brown leading an impassioned gospel number, the cast sings and sways and claps with gleeful abandon. It's no wonder, though, that the abandon is so gleeful. Timber Lake's latest is so hogtied by thematic weightiness and stylistic flourishes that its final minutes are the performers' first and only chances to really let loose.
I'll do my best to describe this particular Children of Eden's structure. Please forgive me if I fail. The production starts with a wordless prelude in which an obviously frustrated man (Brandon Ford) reprimands a boy (Levi Skoog) who we presume is his son. This kid, listed in the program as "The Creator," is sent to his room, where he begins to compose an essay on, fittingly, the world's creation. Through dance and interpretive movement, with Children of Eden's ensemble portraying animals and birds and such, we're witness to the beginnings of life on earth, culminating in the arrival of Adam (Patrick Connaghan) and Eve (Erica Vlahinos). It's at this point that the boy enters his own essay as God - referred to here as "Father" - and warns his human creations that they are not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, despite Eve's intense fascination with the tree. (Adam, for his part, remains contentedly obtuse.)
Father leaves but returns a few scenes later, this time in the form of the boy's father. (Throughout the production, Ford will play both dad to the kid and Dad to Us All, and you can tell the characters apart because his father in the Old Testament scenes shows off more chest hair.) But the boy - that is, The Creator - doesn't altogether vanish. While the Adam and Eve saga plays out, followed by the first act's introduction of Cain (Tyler Sawyer Smith) and Abel (Grant Drager), he'll occasionally be seen in his bedroom, working on his essay or drawing pictures or tearing them up in fits of rage. Then, after the killing of Abel - as presented here, the accidental killing of Abel - the cast unites on-stage, and through photographs and film footage, we're shown how the man's death irrefutably led to world wars, mass genocide, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And that's Act I.
Act II is more straightforward ... at first. Now we're in the boy's classroom, where the students decide to act out the tale of Noah's Ark, giving the show's ensemble another opportunity to act out (or rather, dance out) a number of ill-specified animals. This conceit - with, oddly, Timber Lake's adult actors playing grade- or middle-schoolers alongside actual grade- or middle-schoolers - is sustained as Noah (Aaron Conklin), his wife (Brown), and their sons and daughters-in-law prepare the ark and try to keep youngest son Japheth (Henry McGinniss) from his Cain-descended love, the servant girl Yonah (Daryn Harrell). But just as the characters reach the 40th day of their 40 days and 40 nights aboard the ark, the students' classroom is - apparently - hit by a bomb, and the students are buried beneath the rubble. (Nathan Dahlkemper's scenic design here strongly, and tastelessly, suggests the debris from Manhattan's ground zero.) With the students continuing their Noah's Ark tale from below, and the actors in the earlier Genesis stories now playing rescuers searching for bodies, the narratives converge when The Creator's father, i.e. Father, shows up, and ... .
Okay, that's all I can take. What the hell is going on here? Why has Children of Eden been made so complicated? Don't its Bible stories have enough to teach us about faith and family and responsibility without dragging dual God figures and 9/11 into the mix? There was plenty that drove me batty about the production: the forced symbolism of the child's globe; the first act's visually blah, earth-toned wardrobe selections; the confounding Act II conceit that found Skoog briefly mouthing a song's lyrics to Ford's vocals, and then to the chorus' vocals, and then not mouthing any lyrics whatsoever; the ramp to the ark that was suspended center-stage (within the set design) for more than two hours and then, when finally lowered, never once walked on. But if pressed, I'd say the complete confusion about narrative and tone was what rankled me most; the show was sung awfully well, but given the incoherence of the presentation, not even the most impressive of the musical's performers - among them Vlahinos, Connaghan, Drager, Harrell, and the women playing the Garden of Eden's slinky serpent - seemed able to fully connect with their characters. How could they?
Thank God, then, for that exuberant curtain call, and for Brown's divinely happy and supremely soulful "Ain't It Good" number that preceded it. It would've been preferable, of course, if her glorious wailing wasn't accompanied by the sight of the students - a lot of students - being lifted to freedom one by one; by the song's end, I was less moved by Brown's show-saving performance than concerned for the arms of the two guys doing all that hauling. At this Children of Eden, though, you take your rare moments of grace wherever you can, and for a few blessed minutes, Sophie Brown delivers as much honest, knockout grace as you could ever want. Amen.
For tickets and information, call (815)244-2035 or visit TimberLakePlayhouse.org.