Theatre Review: ‘Children of Eden’ at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild

The cast of “Children of Eden” at Niagara Regional Theatre Guild.

“Children of Eden” is one of those rare shows that, despite being a massive commercial flop at the time of its inception, is still performed frequently today (curiously “Jesus Christ Superstar,” another show with heavy religious themes, also fits this description). Its Biblical content, family-friendliness, and need for a large cast of both children and adults makes it a favorite of community theatres and church groups today, despite its initial 1991 Royal Shakespeare Company production being so poorly-received that it never transferred to Broadway or the West End. Its author Stephen Shwartz is a theatre titan, having also written “Godspell,” “Pippin,” and “Wicked,” and whose mantle is adorned with Grammy, Tony, and Oscar statues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these accolades are for “Children of Eden.”

. . .spectacular performances. . .

“Children of Eden” is a two-act musical whose first act tells the story of Genesis; specifically Adam (M. Joseph Fratello) and Eve (Amy Sturmer) in the Garden of Eden, with Act Two focusing on Noah (John Panepinto) and the flood. “Children of Eden” starts with the very beginning: the creation of the universe. Father (aka God, played by Adam English) breathes life into his children, Adam and Eve, and learns that the hardest part of being a loving Father is letting go. It’s a lesson that translates into the parenting of Cain (Chris Cummings), Abel (Lucas Smith), and Seth — and is reiterated once again as Noah parents his sons Shem (David Lewis), Ham (Dan Cycon), and Japheth (Dan Zerpa) in act two. The story explores the difficulty of choice, the importance of passion, the value of questioning, the hardships of fatherhood, and the pain in allowing those you love to take risks and face the consequences.

“Children of Eden” is an exceedingly odd piece of theatre, particularly the first act. The show fluctuates between the borderline cultiness of white-robed God (whom the characters simply refer to as “Father”) and incestuous Adam and Eve, to cartoonishly silly songs sung by a snake chorus. Particularly odd was how much the show’s authors deviated from original biblical text, such as making Adam and Eve siblings (which serves no purpose in the story, other than to add a thin veil of creepiness) and the circumstances surrounding why Cain killed Abel.  The author’s depiction of God as petty and a little condescending, rather than all-knowing, was another big head-scratcher.

The many shortcomings of this show aren’t a reflection of Niagara Regional Theatre Guild (NRTG)’s production and cast, which were actually quite good, particularly in Act Two. Panepinto (Noah), Kim Ehrenburg (Mama Noah), Zerpa (Japheth), and Cassandra Bigouette (Yonah) all gave spectacular performances, both acting and singing.  Vocal numbers “In Whatever Time We Have”, “Children of Eden”, and “The Hardest Part of Love” were beautifully performed. The show’s technical and lighting design was excellent, especially during Act One as Adam and Eve contemplated pulling fruit from the tree.

Bravo to this talented NRTG cast, who did as well as anyone could expect with such bizarre and lackluster source material.

Running Time:  2 hours and 40 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

“Children of Eden” is being presented by Niagara Regional Theatre Guild at the Ellicott Creek Playhouse until May 20, 2018. For more information, click here.