The cast of Aurora’s musical “Children of Eden” includes Naima Carter Russell (from left), Maxim Gukhman and Brad Raymond. Contributed by Casey Gardner
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Review: Mediocre material plagues Aurora’s ‘Children of Eden’

It’s hardly surprising to discover that “Children of Eden,” a self-righteous musical version of the Book of Genesis, began as the pared-down product of a high-school Bible camp that was eventually seen by the popular composer Stephen Schwartz (“Godspell,” “Wicked”). Legendary Charles Lisanby is credited for that original concept; John Caird wrote the expanded, sophomoric script; and Schwartz added music and lyrics with two dozen or so mostly forgettable tunes.

Not surprisingly, either, after a short-lived and poorly reviewed 1991 engagement in London, plans for a full-blown Broadway rendition were quickly (and no doubt wisely) abandoned.

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What is surprising is whatever possessed the powers-that-be at Aurora Theatre to invest so much obvious time and effort and talent and expense in a show that’s just as obviously obscure and unsung for a reason: It isn’t very good — and all the flashy, Vegas-worthy lights (by Maria Cristina Fuste), costumes (Alan Yeong), projections (Milton Cordero) and choreography (Ricardo Aponte) can’t disguise that fact.

Similarly, under the music direction of Aurora’s Ann-Carol Pence (leading the company’s nine-piece band on keyboards), hiring some of the finest vocalists in town (Brad Raymond and Naima Carter Russell among them) doesn’t make the songs any more sophisticated or memorable, per se, no matter how loudly the cast belts them out.

Photo: Naima Carter Russell and Maxim Gukhman co-star in the musical “Children of Eden” at Aurora Theatre. Contributed by Casey Gardner

Schwartz’s score is a hodgepodge of musical styles, sporadically resembling everything from calypso (“Generations of Adam”) to gospel (“Ain’t It Good”). Numbers intended as theoretically soul-searching ballads (“The Wasteland,” “Lost in the Wilderness”) have a peculiarly peppy, up-tempo beat to them. The one in which Eve is tempted to partake of the forbidden fruit (“In Pursuit of Excellence”) has a big band sound to it; the sinister Snake is represented by a literal kick-line of five chorus members and “storytellers” in shimmering silver and gold lamé.

The first act of the show retells the story of Adam (played by Maxim Gukhman as a jarring cross between bare-chested he-man and golly-gee-whiz little boy) and Eve (Russell fares better); their ouster from the Garden of Eden after eating — or sipping cider, as the case may be — from the Tree of Knowledge; and their struggles in exile while raising alternately rebellious and dutiful sons, Cain (Russell Alexander II) and Abel (Haden Rider).

The second act involves the tale of Noah (also played by Gukhman, much more palatably) and his extended family: his wife, the simply named Mama (Russell again); their own alternately rebellious and dutiful sons, Japeth and Ham (Alexander and Rider again); and sundry others. It also depicts the apocalyptic flood that necessitates the building of Noah’s famous ark.

Photo: Brad Raymond (center) plays God in the musical “Children of Eden” at Aurora Theatre. CONTRIBUTED BY CASEY GARDNER

Shannon Robert’s scenic design features a lot of metal scaffolding that doesn’t very effectively suggest the verdant paradise of Eden — nevermind the skimpy plywood cutout that pops up to represent the supposedly imposing and alluring Tree of Knowledge. In both acts, director Justin Anderson relies heavily on those razzle-dazzle projections to establish a lot of the dramatic environment and atmosphere.

This might mark a low point in the prolific career of the ordinarily industrious Anderson. Still, it’s most disheartening as a long-overdue star vehicle for Raymond, who portrays the central Father figure of the piece (as in God). To hear his booming baritone can be thrilling, but in the embarrassing context of the rest of the show, “Children of Eden” is a waste of his supreme gifts.

THEATER REVIEW

“Children of Eden”

Through Sept. 1. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (excluding Aug. 27 and 28); 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 10 a.m. Tuesdays (July 30 and Aug. 20). $24-$60. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222. auroratheatre.com.

Bottom line: An epic fail of biblical proportions.

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