Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: John Caird
Director: Christian Durham
Musical director: Inga Davis-Rutter
Reviewer: David Guest
Any musical that contains the memorable line, “Oh Noah… you go-a… all the way back to the protozoa” must be worth more than a passing glance. When Children of Eden first hit the West End stage 25 years ago it was a lively, full-blown effort that never quite captured audiences’ imaginations and it was one of the theatrical casualties of the Gulf War and a resulting fall in tourism. Even the cast recording CD was marred by a fault that rendered it unplayable and it was soon withdrawn. The Union Theatre’s buoyant revival of Stephen Schwartz and John Caird’s Bible-based musical treats us to a small production with a giant heart, a stripping down of The Lion King style ‘theatricks’ in favour of allowing an enthusiastic and first-rate young cast to tell the story simply – something, of course, at which the Union Theatre excels.
Director Christian Durham’s take on this retelling of the stories in Genesis of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah has the impromptu feel of Schwartz’s earlier dip into the Bible, Godspell, where an eager group of young people decide to re-examine the old, old story in a contemporary way. It means that this has the ambience of some of those community or youth theatre productions that have kept the show alive for a quarter of a century.
This pared-down style also allows the beauty of the score to come shining through, with some moving and unforgettable songs performed passionately, led authoritatively by musical director Inga Davis-Rutter in a band of four. While some of the original global music spirit may have been lost, this quartet more than makes up for it with boundless energy and an evident love and respect for what is being played, and both the anthemic full cast numbers and soaring solo pieces feel freshly vibrant, not least the fun opening to Act Two, Generations, which contains this review’s opening line.
The show is written as a heartfelt exploration of what it means to be a parent (even God is known as Father) but for those wanting to be a shade more theological, it is perfectly possible to find the larger concepts of Original Sin, forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a well-written piece about living and loving, going wrong and finding the right path, holding on and letting go.
A vigorous cast of 11, with many roles doubled up, ensure this Children of Eden has a lot more life and depth than a Sunday School flannelgraph. There’s something about seeing Joey Dexter as Father that adds a new dimension to the familiar stories; he is a Creator with a touch of humanity and Dexter plays the role with assurance and maturity.
Natasha O’Brien has perhaps the most contrasting of roles, and she handles both admirably – the knowledge-hungry but sincere Eve seeking the Paradise she helped lose and the larger than life Mama Noah, leading the company in the showstopping Gospel number Ain’t It Good? As her other half in both instances (Adam and Noah), Stephen Barry portrays well the child longing to be obedient yet distracted by a sense of family loyalty. His duet with Joey Dexter, The Hardest Part of Love, is exquisite and soul-wrenching.
Gabriel Mokake’s snake is charmingly seductive In Pursuit of Excellence, while Nikita Johal as Yonah delivers one of the show’s greatest hits, Stranger to the Rain, with fiery intensity. Daniel Miles is pleasing as Abel and Ham, while Guy Woolf also stands out as Cain and Japheth, one a sinner, the other a saviour.
Musical theatre buffs will not be surprised at the reminder of just how good Children of Eden is. For those new to this holy, wholly wholesome gem, it will quite rightly be a revelation.
Runs until 10 September 2016 | Image:Scott Rylander