Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Biblical musical suits Sheboygan space

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Step into the Leslie W. Johnson Theatre these days, and you step into the Bible – Garden of Eden, Tree of Knowledge, Noah’s Ark, Stonehenge and all. Stonehenge? We’ll get to that later. The point here is the space for The Sheboygan Theatre Company’s production of “Children of Eden” assists in unfolding the story of the first nine books of the Bible. It’s an agreeable telling with fine voices amid the acting entourage of 36.

Five more performances are set through May 14. Saturday night’s performance received a standing ovation.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Stephen Schwartz; book – John Caird; director/choreographer – Andrea Andresakis; music director/conductor – Ray Rhoads; stage manager – Jackie Blindauer; assistant director – Amanda Ellis; assistant music director/rehearsal accompanist – Melissa Harms; assistant stage manager – Jen Blaha; dance captain – Rachel Brooks; set designers – Steve Toepel and Sue Toepel; costume designers – Bev Dulmes and Mary Jo Beniger; lighting designer – Pat Smith; properties designer/run crew chief – Nan Gibson; hair/make-up/animals designer – Cathy Perronne; assistant hair/make-up/animals designer – Ciara Mohr

Cast: Father – Duncan Doherty; Adam – Kirt Graves; Eve – Beth Leinss; The Snake – Rachel Brooks; Snake Puppeteers – Jenny Wunderlin, Erica Manier, Eulalia Carriveau, Berta Meyers, Leyah Van Ells, Sarah Torres, Keeara Mullenbach; Snake Quintet – Rachel Brooks, Jonathon Weiss, Erik Tanck, Kristin Sorenson, Tiffany Bauer; Young Cain – Bella Rudell; Young Abel – Nico Torres; Cain – Jeremy Lee; Abel – Nate Snyder; Seth – Cody Gornall; “Wasteland” Soloists – Kristin Sorenson, Tiffany Bauer, Rusty Mehlberg, Jenny Wunderlin, David Quinn; “Generations” Soloists – Rachel Brooks, Kristen Sorenson, Kirt Graves, Tiffany Bauer; Noah – Jonathon Weiss; Mama Noah – Maria Payant; Japheth – Jeremy Lee; Yonah – Eulalia Carriveau; Shem – David Quinn; Ham – Rusty Mehlberg; Aphra – Tiffany Bauer; Aysha – Kristen Sorenson; Dove – Bella Rudell; Storytellers – Abby Wetzel, Adam Joseph, Amber Klobucher, Angela Landgraf, Bea Van Geffen, Berta Meyer, Bob Weber, Cody Gornall, Dakota Ortiz, Daniel Ellair, Erica Manier, Erik Tanck, Hailey Gruenke, Jenny Wunderlin, Keeara Muellenbach, Laurynn List, Leyah Van Ells, McKenna Bretz, Noah Van Ells, Sarah Torres, Shelby Blaha

Running time: Two hours, 50 minutes

Remaining performances: 2 p.m. May 8, 7:30 p.m. May 11-14

Info: sheboygantheatrecompany.com

***

Written by Stephen Schwartz and John Caird, the musical is a creature unto itself. It’s a touch operatic in its dramatic/vocal moments as souls and thoughts of characters are divulged… and, in other words, not particularly hummable in its songs. The glue is the story, interpreted broadly by the authors. Distilled to the nth degree: You gotta have faith.

The company hired in director Andrea Andresakis, whose lifelong playground has been New York City and whose side specialty is choreography. At times, the production does dance. In particular, “Generations,” the number that opens the second act, flows in mass movement and bursts with color of costuming and the exuberance of Calypso music. Many of the singers are virtually in the lap of the audience in the amphitheater seating area. The theater is quite alive then.

In other spots, the musical deals with biblical dilemmas and paradoxes. Act I tells of Adam and Eve, Cain’s murder of Abel and subsequent years of wandering and wondering. Act II tells of Noah and his following the rules in building an ark to rescue man and animals, except he breaks one rule and puts us all in the boat we’re in now (according to this story).

A plus of the production is the number of strong voices to carry the characters and story, starting with Duncan Doherty as Father (as in God the father). Dressed in a radiant white robe with silvery touches and a countenance dominated by whiskers and a mane flowing to mid-back, Doherty is a striking figure. He’s got a voice to match: A trained, well-honed baritone of the loft that’s in the role. He looks and sounds the part.

The authors wrote some juicy solos for two of the women characters. Pouring out earnestness and color are Beth Leinss in “The Spark of Creation” as Eve in the first act and Eulalia Carriveau in “Stranger to the Rain” as Yonah in the second act.

The authors also wrote a whole lot of searching into the songs (well presented) of Adam (Kirt Graves), Cain (Jeremy Lee), Noah (Jonathon Weiss) and Japeth (Jeremy Lee again). Also notably bright are the songs of Rachel Brooks as The Snake and Maria Payant as Mama Noah. The orchestra led by Ray Rhoads lays a solid foundation for the singers and the overall musical setting.

The production employs a lot young people to help “dress” the story. They play the many animals and help tell the story through movement and song. There’s a level of cute, led by the doves that are woven into the climax.

Prior to Saturday’s performance, managing director Tom Berger prepared the audience to expect the lighting system to act up because it was limping along in the wake of a power surge. Indeed, as the performance rolled on, lighting in various spots in the theater would flash on and off willy-nilly. This was distracting, yes, but the performers soldiered on and stayed focused. So, a tip of the hat to them.

What threw me the most was the use of Stonehenge imagery. Stonehenge is a real place in England with a circle of stones that were hauled a long distance and placed in an orderly fashion by humans long ago. Each year, people who have been thinking too much gather at the spot for the summer solstice and engage cosmic celebration. In this interpretation of the musical, Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel arrive at “A Ring of Stones,” a song and a place, and the stone setup is that of Stonehenge. That is quite an interesting interpretation by Andresakis and/or the creative folks in this production. Was this, perhaps, tongue-in-cheek?

Overall, the theater’s space is a problem or an opportunity, depending on the play/musical. In this case, it is an opportunity. Andresakis and associates on the rear proscenium stage built a Garden of Eden, which becomes a barren wasteland, which becomes an overall space for the area around Noah’s Ark on the audience’s left and the Ark itself at the right. The two half-circles in front of the proscenium stage are flexible scene surfaces. The larger half-circle is employed in giant scenes – the opening sequence with the full cast carrying lights and Act II’s festive “Generations.” Of note, the smaller half-circle becomes the bow of Noah’s Ark for characters to perform on, with the “cabin” part of the Ark placed on the proscenium stage. The space is one of the distinctive theater spaces in our region. It demands imagination, and this time key elements of the Bible fit well into it.

Songs

Act I

“Let There Be” – Father and Full Company

“Perfect” (Part 1) – Storytellers, Father, Adam and Eve

“The Tree of Knowledge” – Father and Adam

“The Naming” – Father, Adam, Eve and Storytellers

“Grateful Children” – Adam and Eve

“Father’s Day” – Father

“Perfect” (Part 2) – Storytellers, Father, Adam and Eve

“The Spark of Creation” – Eve

“In Pursuit of Excellence” – Snake and Eve

“The End of a Perfect Day” – Storytellers

“Childhood’s End” – Storytellers, Father and Eve

“A World Without You” – Adam, Father and Eve

“The Expulsion” – Father and Storytellers

“The Wasteland” – Storytellers

“Wilderness Family” – Adam, Young Cain and Young Abel

“The Spark of Creation” (Reprise 1) – Eve

“Lost in the Wilderness” – Cain and Abel

“Lost in the Wilderness” (Reprise) – Cain

“Close to Home” – Adam, Eve, Abel, Young Cain and Young Abel

“A Ring of Stones” – Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel

“Clash of the Generations” – Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel

“The Death of Abel” – Eve and Storytellers

“The Mark of Cain” – Father and Storytellers

“Children of Eden” – Eve and Full Company

Act II

“Generations” – Storytellers

“The Gathering Storm” – Noah and Father

“A Piece of Eight” – Storytellers, Noah, Mama Noah, Japeth, Yonah, Ham, Shem, Aphra and Aysha

“Blind Obedience” – Noah

“The Return of the Animals” – Orchestra

“The Naming” (Reprise)/“Noah’s Lullaby” – Storytellers and Noah

“Stranger to the Rain” – Yonah

“In Whatever Time We Have” – Japeth and Yonah

“The Flood” – Father and Storytellers

“What is He Waiting For?” – Noah, Mama Noah, Japeth, Ham, Shem, Aphra and Aysha

“Sailor of the Skies” – Yonah

“The Spark of Creation” (Reprise 2) – Mama Noah

“The Hardest Part of Love” – Noah and Father

“Words of Doom” – Storytellers

“The Hour of Darkness” – Noah, Mama Noah, Japeth, Yonah, Ham, Shem, Aphra and Aysha

“Ain’t It Good?” – Mama Noah and Full Company

“Precious Children” – Father

“In the Beginning” – Japeth, Yonah, Noah, Mama Noah, Father, and Full Company

THE VENUE: The 870-seat Leslie W. Johnson Theatre is a spacious facility in the shape of an amphitheater. The seats are red. The ceiling is high. The front row of seats is on the performance level, which is a half circle. A proscenium (flat front) stage area extends across the rear line of the half circle. For “The Christmas Schooner, A Musical,” the performance area makes full use of the space. The theater is located in Horace Mann Middle School, which was built in 1970. The aura of the lobby and theater combined is that of a community gathering place.

THE PEOPLE: Leslie W. Johnson was a Sheboygan superintendent of schools. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was a leader in the development of public education in the United States, including the teaching of teachers.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV between 6 and 7:30 a.m. Sundays.

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