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The Play-Goer: Children of Eden at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church

People of all ages and great talent bring the Bible to life

       A Broadway-style show with choreography, live music, costumes and professional-grade theatrical lighting may seem a bit ambitious for a church production. Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severn pulls it off beautifully in Children of Eden.

         The two-act musical with lyrics and music written by composer Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Wicked fame is loosely based on the first nine books of Genesis. Both acts tell classic biblical stories with new, suspenseful twists. With reoccurring themes of free will and consequences, the stories of Genesis feel both modern and ancient as the audience is repeatedly reminded that the hardest part of love is letting go.

         In Act I, a vain and demanding Father (David Thompson) creates the universe. Then, feeling lonely, he creates Adam (David Merrill who also directs) and Eve (Sarah Kent). Merrill and Kent are both Woods Memorial Church music staffers and regulars in the local community scene. As Adam and Eve, their only jobs are to name and care for animals and to keep Father amused.

         Humankind, however, proves willful and difficult to manage. Adam and Eve lose favor with Father when they eat the Forbidden Fruit. Choosing an appropriate punishment for his disobedient children, Father casts them into the Wilderness where they farm the land and raise sons Cain, Abel and Seth. Adam and Eve continue to seek Father’s forgiveness and approval, even when tragedy strikes.

         Kent’s curious and daring Eve is the perfect counter to Merrill’s child-like Adam. Staging is simple, with a few props delineating each setting. Characters enrich our imagination, with the actors simulating the Tree of Life and the fateful snake.

         Act II takes place many generations later with the story of Noah (Kevin Cleaver). Alerted by Father of His plan to flood the Earth destroying most of humanity, the devoted Noah follows orders to build an ark so that his family and the world’s animals are spared. When Noah’s youngest son Japheth (Drew Sharpe) chooses for his wife, Yonah, a servant girl from the doomed House of Cain, Noah is forced to choose between his love of family and his obedience to Father.

         We feel Cleaver’s anguish as Noah decides the fate of his family. Our souls soar as Noah’s wife (Jennifer Augustine) sings songs of praise.

         Holding the stories together over generations is Thompson, with his commanding performance as the ever-present Father who delights in his creation and is the first to experience the challenges of parenthood. The strength of his stage presence and voice make him a good person to be playing God.

         Still, it’s the performance of the young people that surprises and delights. Cain, Abel, Noah’s sons and their wives are all played by high school students who handle their roles with the level of professionalism that goes beyond mere talent. Sarah Kalafos is hauntingly tender as the servant girl Yonah. Sharpe’s Japheth is determined and passionate in his pursuit to make his parents accept her as his bride. Jake Wernecke’s Cain and Matthew Beagan’s Abel epitomize the love and strife felt by siblings of every generation.

         The church’s adult, youth and children’s choirs make up the chorus of Storytellers. This highly talented, multigenerational troupe sings and dances in both acts and draws the audience into the story. Many of the church’s pre-school and elementary school members add to the pageantry as adorable costumed animals, in the Garden and on the Ark. The orchestra — under the direction of conductor Thomas Magetta in Act 1 and Merrill in Act 2 — and the choreography by assistant director Elysia Merrill make it easy to lose oneself in the magic of the performance.

         The only flaw is that the orchestra sometimes overpowers the singing performance of some of the actors, but not consistently enough to interfere with our enjoyment.

         The relatable plot, high-energy performances and up-lifting music make this a must-see show for all ages.

 

Thru April 29: FSaSu 8pm, Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, Severna Park, $10, rsvp: www.woodstix.org.