Children of Eden

There’s enough power and beauty built into “Children of Eden” that a theater producing it almost need only grab onto its coattails. Do it some degree of justice and voila, you’ve produced one of the best shows of the year.

The SCERA production, directed by Jan Shelton, is almost as good as the show deserves. Some of SCERA’s classic flaws emerge, such as chorus members who draw attention to themselves when they ought to be blending in, and people who sound very, very young being asked to play characters who are very, very old. And yet this Bible-based musical has such glorious humanity behind it, and is so well-acted here, that its spirit comes shining through regardless. It is not just a play, but an experience.

With book by John Caird and songs by Stephen Schwartz, the show finds parallels in the stories of Adam and Eve (in the first act) and Noah’s Ark (in the second). It is not strictly doctrinal — you are at the theater, not a Sunday School class — but it successfully conveys principles of parenting, forgiveness, and learning from our mistakes.

The God character is called “Father” most often, suggesting we ought not take things too literally. The abundant dance and stage movement among the large ensemble, choreographed by Sunny Claitor, provides additional theatricality.

Father (Neal Johnson) creates Adam (Clayton Vance) and Eve (Tiffany Nutter), and the story proceeds from there. The second act jumps ahead to Noah’s (Josh Tenney) family, where son Japheth (Chad Mortensen) insists upon marrying Yonah (Melissa Lindsay), who is of the race of Cain. It rains; there is strife; all participants, including the Father, learn valuable lessons about the nature of free will and repentance.

Neal Johnson is excellent as the Father, displaying that all-too-rare combination of a fine singing voice and sincere acting ability. He ranges from fatherly affection to rage to bitter disappointment, all while maintaining dignity and strength.

Adding more depth is Tiffany Nutter, who plays Eve with enough big personality to register in the large outdoor venue while still remaining believable. She, like the show, is full of fire, humor and life. Clayton Vance is a congenial, prototypically handsome Adam with a strong voice and honest emotion, though some of his gestures are too presentational and “act-y.”

Kevin Goertzen and Chad Taylor hit the right buttons as the rebellious, questioning Cain and his ill-fated brother.

In the second act, Josh Tenney is fine as Noah but miscast with a ridiculous fake beard and the worst old-age makeup since … well, probably since the last time SCERA tried to make someone look old. It’s too bad, because he’s a good performer. Chad Mortensen and Melissa Lindsay blend well in the lovely duet “In Whatever Time We Have”; David Nutter and Stewart Shelley are amusing as Noah’s good sons, Shem and Ham.

The production is lopsided. The better performances and the more poignant emotions occur in the first act, thanks largely to Tiffany Nutter’s final words as Mother Eve. The second act ties everything together thematically, but it can’t hold a candle to what came before in terms of making me, personally, cry. I suppose your mileage may vary.

The prerecorded orchestrations are sometimes obviously slower in tempo than the singers wish they were. Furthermore, the musicians played “A World Without You” — a song full of inner conflict — utterly without passion or crescendo. Ditto “Ain’t It Good?,” Sarah Broberg’s time to shine as Mamma Noah, played here with barely a hint of the exuberance it ought to have. Not having a live conductor to bring singers in at the right time is a problem, too.

And yet, it’s a fantastic show. Some elements have prevented it from being transcendent, but they are not enough to diminish its general brilliance. Sure enough, it is one of the year’s best shows.

Should you go? Yes. You will rarely see such an uplifting combination of humor, tragedy and hope.

"Children of Eden" has been one of my favorite shows since BYU produced it in 1999. I suspect of all the CDs I own, the score from this show is the one (well, it's a two-disc set) I've listened to the most.