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Reptile Dysfunction: The snake tempts Eve (LaTonya Holmes) with forbidden knowledge.

Parenting Creation

AMT's 'Children of Eden' paints God as an exasperated father

By Heather Zimmerman

KIDS NEVER LISTEN--they always have to find out things for themselves. In Stephen Schwartz's and John Caird's musical Children of Eden, even God has to learn this painful lesson about letting go of His children. American Musical Theatre of San Jose offers a vibrant production of this variation on part of the Genesis book of the Bible, a retelling that gives us God (called "Father" in the musical) as the world's first parent.

But this setting of the dark tales of Adam and Eve and Noah to music makes the Almighty seem a trifle sadistic: He becomes the ultimate dysfunctional dad, and Genesis seems like one big long time-out, with humanity permanently banished to the corner while God thinks up a punishment adequate for our disobedience.

The play's allegory to parenting strains credibility, but on a more basic level, Children of Eden works quite well as a sort of Bible coloring book come to life. Dottie Lester White's ambitious choreography creates a beautiful, deliberate chaos with the sizable chorus. Particularly fun is "The Return of the Animals," a swirling parade that recreates the menagerie of animals descending upon Noah's ark.

Michael Anania's set design provides a sparse but striking backdrop for such numbers, and for Greg Barbes' costumes, which range from whimsical animal masks to graceful Middle Eastern-inspired garb.

The production's visual appeal easily outdoes most of the characterizations, although fortunately not the overall musical performances. In the double role of Adam and Noah, Adrian Zmed brings too much self-righteousness to his characters, but his appealing singing softens his interpretation. LaTonya Holmes as Eve/Mama Noah substitutes whininess for innocence in the role of Eve; fortunately, Holmes compensates with a truly sumptuous singing voice.

As Father, John Huntington does what he can with an underwritten role, and his rich vocals lend themselves well to such a formidable character. Elizabeth Ann Traub also turns in one of the better performances as Yonah, a servant girl whose forbidden romance with one of Noah's sons throws her into conflict.

Schwartz is the composer behind Godspell and Pippin, and he also wrote the lyrics for the 1996 Disney musical film The Hunchback of Notre Dame; the majority of the music in Children of Eden falls squarely between the Up With People brio of Pippin's "Magic to Do" and the maudlin manipulation of Hunchback's "God Help the Outcasts"--they are forgettable, at worst.

Schwartz's best creations have flavors beyond such Broadway vanilla--in particular, "In Pursuit of Excellence," a burlesque chorus-line number in which the snake tempts Eve.

Jesus Christ Superstar (whatever your feelings toward Andrew Lloyd Webber) skillfully modernized a Biblical epic, perhaps because it understood--exploited even--the reliance on spectacle that theater, especially musical theater, and religion have in common. Children of Eden works that in reverse, diminishing epic occurences to a family squabble gone awry--a provocative idea, but the play doesn't characterize God enough.

God's relationship with humans becomes a simple matter of might makes right: what sets this Father apart from his children is not superior knowledge or feeling, but merely His power to make them scurry from His wrath. That the human characters follow Him out of any motivation other than fear is a mystery, and even God's final decision to allow humans to follow their own free will has an air of faintly disgusted resignation, rather than that of a loving parent struggling to let go.

Children of Eden plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm, Sunday at 2 and 7pm, through Jan. 30 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $40-$55. (888.455.SHOW)

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From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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