Jazzing Up Genesis 

The Willows sets the Bible to song in a catchy production not for sticklers.

Christ. Judas. And now the Father. Many of the Bible's big dudes are getting plenty of exposure this Easter season. Why we need so much affirmation of the mythos underlying our society is a question for another time. Could it be some deep-seated reaction to our current clash with Islam? After all, where is the big movie project highlighting the story of Muhammad ascending to heaven from the rock over which a golden dome now arches? It's a great story -- you have the angel Gabriel, a magic horse, Muhammad coming to pray with other prophets (including Jesus), a night journey -- the whole megillah. Most importantly, it's a story few Jews or Christians know -- unlike Genesis, the origin of all three faiths, which requires a significant coat of paint to seem new. Snakes, apples, fratricide, arks, floods; we know this story by heart. Enter the Willows with Children of Eden, a new musical meant to give us a new vision by casting the story as a momentous family struggle, brightened up with singing and dancing and a great many children dressed as lovable animals.

Sticklers for Biblical accuracy will have some trouble with this one. Director Andrew Holtz isn't kidding when he notes that the play is loosely based on Genesis. I won't even start on the absence of Lilith, since she's not well-known as Adam's uppity first consort, but in Children of Eden, Adam and Eve are created as siblings waking up to each other's attractiveness (which is a little weird if you think about it too much) after a big day of animal-naming. Cain kills Abel by accident; he's actually getting upset because he wants to meet some new people and his father Adam is dead against it, and in the melee Abel gets bashed with the rock meant for Dad.

Most notably, the story of Noah is spiced up with a little "pox upon your two houses" action when Noah's middle son, Japheth, falls for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks; Yonah (the lovely-voiced Natalie Amaya) is a daughter of the line of Cain, and this whole flood business is the Father's way of clearing out the Cain-kind. But Japheth sneaks her on board the ark, she is the one who releases the dove, and when the rest of the family finds out about the stowaway, there's a big drama about whether to throw her overboard. It's all very exciting, but it totally contradicts the story as it's usually told. Although in the usual story the wives don't even have names of their own, so perhaps this is a step up. And you need something juicy if you're going to stop your story before you get to the part where Noah gets drunk and passes out naked (Genesis 9:21-27) and then curses his youngest son for running to tell his brothers. But hey, it's a family show. And Genesis was, after all, written by at least four different people over a period of 550-odd years; you expect some inconsistency.

The fact that the wives have names reflects a more interesting choice than the one to change certain bits of the original story. Along with names, John Caird (who wrote the book for Les Misérables) and Stephen Schwartz (the composer of Wicked and Godspell) have made the admirable decision to give the female characters more intelligence and agency. So Eve isn't a simpleminded, easily seduced patsy here: As C. Kelly Wright plays her, Eve is a lot smarter and more curious about the world than her mate Adam (Bruce Thompson), who just wants to mimic his dad and put his bugs in order. When Eve goes after the apple (hanging from a suitably mysterious tree and lit from within in a nice effect) she knows exactly what she's doing. She's going to go places, learn things, invent stuff (she starts with strudel, fritters, pie, and cider). Caird spares her and us the "real" story's goriness: when Father realizes what's happened and gives the kids the boot, he doesn't mention the whole bearing-children-in-agony bit, which is a relief. Unfortunately we still get the theme about women being to blame when things go wrong: first Eve, and then Eve again for the curiosity that leads Cain to clock his brother, and then Yonah for prolonging the deluge.

The Willows does a great job realizing this musical. The beautifully multicultural cast sing and move well, the costumes are great, and the sets are simple and effective. The design of the snake (a very large puppet manipulated by half a dozen people wearing black hats and leotards) is especially nice. All of the animal designs, in fact, are clever. The most exciting parts of the musical were the ones with the animals creeping, slithering, and generally being fruitful all over the stage. There's a girl who makes a terrific monkey, for example, and the design of the horse-type creatures (the horses, zebras, and unicorns) is particularly well done. Some of the musical numbers (like the calypso-flavored one that covers the begats) are both funny and catchy, and the cast seems to be having a great time performing them. All told, if you're into Bible stories, this is much more fun than the Gibson flick currently bleeding its way around the country. If you're not, it might be a little long at three hours. After all, like The Passion of the Christ, you already know how it ends.


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