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Theater review: A vocally charged ‘Children of Eden’ soars at Shine! Theatre

All things considered, you’d expect God to have a pretty decent voice. Even so, in Shine! Theatre’s new production of “Children of Eden,” you might be surprised to hear just how heavenly the Almighty sings.

(The production finishes its second weekend with performances 7 p.m. Thursday, July 14, and Friday, July 15; and 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, July 16, at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Fresno.)

In Stephen Schwartz’s 1991 pop musical, directed with a sure, sensitive hand by tony sanders, God is presented as a character known as Father. You know the story: After Western civilization’s favorite omnipotent deity makes the universe, he gets lonely. He creates Adam, Eve, some nice plants and a menagerie of animals. Plus, to mix things up a bit, he throws in a hissing snake and the Tree of Knowledge. This tree bears a special fruit that absolutely, positively and under no circumstances is Adam or Eve supposed to eat – even though everyone knows the best way to get someone to do something is to absolutely, positively, and under no circumstances forbid them to.

I think I’d be willing to commit the original sin and eat that piece of fruit if it meant I got the knowledge to appreciate wonderful vocals. That’s what I enjoyed most about this heartfelt, beautifully sung production – starting with Miguel Molinar, who plays Father. (I’ve raved about Molinar’s singing before.) There isn’t a weak voice in the rest of the cast, either. (Jenny Myers is the vocal coach.) Because of the intimate, in-the-round theater space, you’re never far from any of the actors, and the surround-sound effect you get is just gorgeous.

Of course, things get itchy in the garden pretty quickly. Eve (a moving Ke’Lea Flowers, whom you might recognize Selma’s “Bring It On” and Good Company’s “Mamma Mia”) eats from the tree after being tempted by Snake (a sequence voiced by Michael David and niftily choreographed by Maria Monreal. Adam (local veteran actor Harrison Mills, finding a deep emotional connection with the character), rallies to her side when Father gets angry. In one of the most charged moments in the play, Adam struggles when given the choice between Eve or staying in Eden. I really believed his anguish. But his choice is preordained.

And, yes, paradise is lost.

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Cast out of the garden, Adam and Eve eke out a living in the rocky wilderness. Sons Cain (David, suitably rebellious) and Abel (Nick Sterling, in a gentle, bright performance) soon come along. (And we all know how that story turns out.) In the second act, we shift to a retelling of the Noah’s Ark narrative, with Mills and Flowers stepping into the roles of Noah and his wife.

David, a Fresno newcomer, is a powerhouse singer and actor. (His “Lost in the Wilderness” is a highlight.) So is Ashlyn Kolbert, who joins with him in the second act to sing the well known “In What Little Time,” one of the songs in this sometimes forgotten musical that has wandered onto anthologies of best-loved Broadway tunes. A dedicated core of “storytellers,” or ensemble members, including several little ones, add to the sense of communal celebration.

While the singing, acting and direction is first-rate, the production’s minimalist design doesn’t enhance the material. Shine! Theatre and scenic designer Nicki Lack has done an admirable job converting a basketball gym into a performing space, but the set needs more of a substantial feel. Even the simple circular platform that serves as a stage felt haphazard. (It didn’t help that I attended a matinee performance; a lot of afternoon natural light came in despite black-out curtains, which diminished the theatrical experience.)

This is the first time I’ve seen “Children of Eden,” and I was a lot more impressed with the play itself than I thought I’d be. I was expecting almost a Bible-story-nursery-tale type of experience along the lines of a gauzy, poppy “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” There can be a flower-children kind of vibe to “Children of Eden,” but the material also has darker tones.


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The character of Father, in particular, goes against type. Molinar brings a hardness to the role befitting its Old Testament inspiration. While loving and beneficent, this is also a deity who is petulant, defensive, arrogant and flawed. Both Eve and Noah ask hard questions: Why would God create humans with the capacity to ask questions and then flamboyantly tempt them with a way to find the answers? How can God be so indifferent to the cruelty of the world? And how could God discriminate against an entire group of people – the race of Cain – and inflict pain and suffering on them without regard to individual merit?

Theologians have debated such things for centuries, and I’m not saying you’re going to get a college-level Philosophy of Religion course out of “Children of Eden,” but the subject matter – along with Molinar’s steely performance – certainly gives the material extra intellectual depth.

But it would all be simply an exercise without those wonderful vocals sung in an intimate space. At one point, God was sitting just a row ahead of me and three seats away. I don’t think I’ve been that close to Heaven in a long time.


 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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