There is no better feeling than being totally surprised by a theatre production. I had no idea what to expect with Children of Eden. It was the WAAPA second year musical theatre students’ first standalone musical after their public debut earlier in the year (the play Beach) and sterling support of the third years in West Side Story. I am not a religious person so the prospect of an overt retelling of sections of the Bible left me somewhat cold. The Enright Studio is also my least favourite venue at the Mount Lawley campus tending, on occasion, to be a little cramped seating wise.
I’m happy to report that any reservations I had disappeared almost immediately in what turned out to be a spectacular production. The second years were uniformly excellent; it is a beautiful score with wonderful songs; and the venue was comfortably configured and used to maximum effect. I walked away with a real sense of the ‘wow’ factor hence my delighted surprise.
The story is familiar even to someone as unschooled in the Bible as me – the First Act is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden who are subsequently cast into the Wasteland when they defy ‘Father’ and eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The Second Act is Noah and the great flood. What I didn’t expect is how much good-natured humour there is throughout. The themes of free will versus (parental) control, unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness and ultimately letting go so that your children, however you want to define that term, can exercise their own choices are universal and there is nothing preachy at all here. It is a joyous recounting of iconic tales that have survived for two millennia.
I particularly liked the parallels as first Adam then Noah assumes the de facto ‘Father’ mantle of their respective families and the hard earned lessons that lead to forgiveness and love. Another key aspect is that a completely different cast of performers is featured in each Act which gives everyone a chance to shine. And shine they do…
Father is played by Matthew Hyde, a towering figure in a sharp white suit who is genial and kind to his children Adam (Daniel Ridolfi) and Eve (Baylie Hemming) as they discover the joys of the Garden. That benevolence turns to consternation then wrath as they defy him. Hyde plays both sides of that coin well and is aided in his rage by great lighting and sound effects as he curses Cain and later in the Second Act brings the thunder and rain.
Hemming is the impulsive ‘spark of creativity’ as she quizzes Father relentlessly and is first to fall to the seductive charms of the Snake and partake of the forbidden fruit. She does well with the difficult The Spark of Creation but it’s in the final number of the First Act, Children of Eden that Hemming excels.
Ridolfi is a warm Adam with a lovely singing voice who calmly and implacably believes Father will return to take them away from the Wasteland. A World Without You where he proclaims his love for Eve even if it means joining her in exile is a highlight.
We soon meet a playful young Abel (Harrison Prouse) and a sullen young Cain (Joe Meldrum) subsequently played as teenagers by Morgan Palmer and Chris Wilcox respectively. Wilcox, in particular, gives a physical and forceful performance as he challenges Adam and ultimately Father. He exploded into action in the second half of the First Act and added a rock flavour in his singing and posture. The death of Abel at his hands is well handled and the darkest point of the tale.
The other significant presence is the Snake, a sensational six-headed ssynthesissss of sensuousnesssssss and sssssslinkinessssss as sssimulated by Tayla Jarrett, Taryn Ryan, Kate Thomas, Rosabelle Elliott, Jess Phillippi and Megan Kozak. Their tempting of Eve is downright playful and sexy.
After the interval Megan Kozak warms up the audience as she’s featured in the boisterous Generations. Then it’s time for Noah (Jacob Dibb) to assume the father mantle as he guides his wife Mamma (Heather Manley) and sons Japeth (Joel Granger), Ham (Callum Sandercock) and Shem (Alex Thompson) through the perils of arranged marriage and, of course, the building of the ark. Japeth incurs the wrath of the family when he chooses to wed Yonah (Matilda Moran) who is marked as the line of Cain and therefore seen to be utterly unsuitable.
Granger and Moran’s duet In Whatever Time We Have echoes A World Without You and is another highlight. Moran also features with Stranger to the Rain and was most impressive in the acting stakes as Yonah becomes the unlikely catalyst for compassion and healing as the situation becomes desperate on the ark. In fact this whole sequence is nicely acted with Dibb’s work pivotal and Rosabelle Elliott and Jess Phillippi rounding out the main cast as Aphra and Aysha respectively.
Then there’s Heather Manley who blew the doors off the joint with a blistering rendition of the gospel flavoured Ain’t It Good. Even the ensemble seemed impressed as they were all smiles responding to the vocal fireworks. It ends with the entire cast singing In The Beginning which was a fitting and emotional finale to a great show that had so many other highlights even in small moments like Sandercock’s vocal work as Adam and Eve enter the Wasteland.
I must mention the atypical setup that had three rows of seating along both of the long walls of the Enright Studio facing each other. This meant the performers were in very close proximity as they used the entire length of the narrower stage space. At times they were even behind those rows singing in what I overheard one audience member describe as “surround sound” – a nice effect. Finally, the band of Derek Bond (piano), Alex Barker (bass) and Ellenor Pereira (drums) who were tucked away in a corner was excellent and I really enjoyed the beautiful piano driven score.
Directed by Adam Mitchell with a Book by John Caird, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Musical Direction by Derek Bond and featuring the second year musical theatre students and the three piece band of Bond, Barker and Pereira, Children of Eden is a wonderful piece of musical theatre that is uplifting and beautifully delivered. A must see with only 5 more performances until 18 October 2014.