The Paper Mill Playhouse celebrates its 60th anniversary with “Children of Eden,” a joyous blend of fable and biblical allegory. Author John Caird and composer Stephen Schwartz have adapted the first nine chapters of Genesis into an enchanting family entertainment of splendor and sweep.
Boasting a sprawling cast of 60 performers, “Children of Eden” weaves a score of varied musical motifs with colorful imagery and vivid visual special effects. A rich choral opening introduces Father (William Solo), the God figure, who summons light, vegetation and human life in “Let There Be.” Adam (Adrian Zmed) and Eve (Stephanie Mills) enter the sumptuous estate of Eden under the bountiful and glittering tree of knowledge. With “The Naming,” they define words for the surrounding hills, trees and waterfalls. Wearing imaginative masks and costumes, children fill the stage as beasts of the forest and assorted feathered friends.
With traditional musical-comedy flair, the saucy and tempting snake, sung by five actors carrying a mock 40-foot serpent, join Eve in a jaunty “In Pursuit of Excellence.” The show’s playful humor emerges as Eve eats of the forbidden fruit, and offers Adam a dinner of turnovers, strudel and cider, coyly avoiding divulging the ingredients.
The rebellious son Cain, acted and sung with sturdy vigor by Darius de Haas, wanders into the forest to discover prehistoric ruins. Towering stone monuments with heads of beaked birds slide into an awesome circle. The adventurous Cain, seeking a world east of Eden, defies the wrathful Father, slays his brother, Abel (Hunter Foster), and is banished as a fugitive.
“Generations,” a rousing second-act choral opener set to African rhythms, covers the “begats.” Thunderclaps and flashes of lightening segue to the Flood, the beasts and birds entering two by two in the evening’s show-stopper, “Return of the Animals.”
There is also a sweet romance between Noah’s son Japeth (de Haas) and the outcast servant girl Yonah (Kelli Rabke) whom he has smuggled aboard the Ark. They join in a beautiful pledge of love called “In Whatever Time We Have.” When land is sighted, Mills scores with a rousing, gospel-flavored “Ain’t It Good.”
All the performances are fine. Zmed sings and acts with robust and appealing authority as both the eager and youthful Adam, and the wise, mature Noah. Mills brings nice contrast to the impetuous, girlish Eve and as Noah’s comforting wife. Solo invests the Creator with warmth and dignity. De Haas is a standout in the dual roles of Cain and Japeth, and Rabke’s wistful “Sailor of the Skies,” is a plaintive musical statement.
Robert Johanson has staged the timeless tale with energy, grace and power. The fusion of dance, music and storytelling moves fluently. A large revolving disc accommodates the smooth flow of action, supported by designer Michael Anania’s leafy garden and a titanic ark.
This is the most ambitious and impressive score to date by Schwartz, and it is spiced with a variety of jubilant tunes, haunting melodies and sensitive lyrics. The composer began his collaboration with Caird on this project seven years ago in London, honing and pruning until they felt it was ready. Restructured and revised in regional theater productions, it certainly appears to be ready, and its future seems assured. The only production problem would appear to be its sizable cast, which the Paper Mill has resourcefully enrolled as its largest ever.