'Children of Eden' and 'Candide' 

Heaven on stage Devoid of the well-known Broadway songs of a Cole Porter, a Rodgers and Hammerstein or an Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s “Children of Eden” is nevertheless an enjoyable, moving, well-cast and well-directed musical that should please its holiday season audiences. Call it the Rep’s perfect present for the family, one that through John Caird’s book goes beyond a retelling of the Book of Genesis and instead serves as a lesson about relationships and second chances. You’ll find Stephen Schwartz’s likeable songs in capable hands. William Solo, who plays Father (a.k.a. God), and Heather Ayers, as Eve in Act I and Mama Noah in Act 2, are two of the best musical actors to grace the Rep’s stage. Ayers is back after a rousing turn as Reno Sweeney in the Cliff Baker-directed “Anything Goes” in 2001. At that time, we deemed that musical as good as anything the Rep had staged in recent years. Put “Children of Eden” in that class, and certainly in the top three shows we’ve seen in the past five years. Maybe Ayers has that magic touch. No doubt Rep producing artistic director Bob Hupp does in directing “Children of Eden,” blending strong voices and experienced actors with an assortment of smiling, singing children and stunning animal costumes, thanks to the work of costume designer Rafael Castanera. Children in the audience, and many adults, were oohing and aahing at the elephants, giraffes and hippos that made their way toward Noah’s ark in Act II. Ayers, who in her two Rep musicals has shown to have a knack of bringing the Rep’s house down with a rousing closing number, does it here with the gospel romp “Ain’t It Good.” Solo, who is featured on the 1998 “Children of Eden” soundtrack with Stephanie Mills, gets the musical off and running with his powerful “Let There Be,” and throughout he exudes the paternal characteristics necessary for the role. The striking Trista Moldovan and Eric Chan, two of the youngest Equity actors among the adults in the 37-member cast, handle multiple roles with ease. In fact, they are part of a five-actor hissing and tempting “snake” character that is a highlight of Act I. While “Eden” may lack the musical impact of Schwartz’s “Wicked” (currently on Broadway) or “Godspell,” it has tunes that tug at the heartstrings in places, and others that get the place rocking. Kudos to the musicians under the direction of Kristy L. Nicholson. “Children of Eden” continues through Jan. 2. Super ‘Candide’ The brilliance of Leonard Bernstein’s score and the wit of Richard Wilbur’s lyrics remain undimmed in the Weekend Theatre’s production of “Candide.” Based on an 18th-century French novella by Voltaire, the play is a satire on religion and war. The protagonist Candide, played by Gabriel Washam, bcomes demoralized after he suffers one misadventure after another. Based largely on Voltaire’s experiences in the Seven Years’ War, anti-war messages are sprinkled all throughout this fast-paced narrative as Voltaire underscores how war wastes human life. From its rich overture to songs such as “Make Our Garden Grow” and “Glitter and Be Gay,” Bernstein’s brilliant spoof of every opera coloratura glitters. Washam’s fine tenor voice and considerable charm make a happily hapless hero to his often kidnapped and ravished damsel in distress, Cunegonde, played by the beautiful Karen Q. Clark, a professional actor from New York. Ralph Hyman was a master of the quick change, playing the narrator Voltaire and so-called omniscient Dr. Pangloss, who simply changes his views of the world to fit to his lifestyle. The play is also enlivened by the comical timing of Laurie Pascale as the Old Lady, whose missing buttock does not keep her from walking away with some of the funniest bits of business, especially in the show-stopping “I’m Easily Assimilated.” From the entire cast to the lighting designer to the choreographer, all deserve high praise for their contribution to this great revival. — By Jimmy Cheffen

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