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As the Garden Turns 

And a world-class festival to envy

When you pass through the colonnades at Halton Theater to watch Children of Eden, you don't get the Book of Genesis quite the same way it has been passed down through the generations. John Caird's script revamps and reshapes the familiar storylines, adding touches of political correctness, filling out character sketches and motivations and sprinkling in fresh themes.

So Adam chooses to bite the forbidden fruit after God has expelled Eve from the Garden for eating it. Eve outlives Adam all the same. Cain isn't jealous of Abel so much as he's furious with his dad. And Noah -- God's last best hope for a perfect world -- is six months behind schedule in building the ark. "It was tough getting parts," he sheepishly explains.

Caird stretches out the saga of Cain so that it includes his descendants, becoming a story of love and redemption as Japheth sneaks his chosen bride Yonah aboard the ark as a stowaway. Rather than the biblical extermination of the race of Cain, we get the mercy of Noah taking over as God finally lets go and allows humanity free choice.

If Caird seems preoccupied with Cain, composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz is most memorable in the music he lavishes upon the heavenly Father and a massive chorus of storytellers. For the current CPCC Summer Theatre production, director Tom Hollis maneuvers over 40 children, teens and adults onstage so the vitality of humankind isn't upstaged by the glory of God.

Thanks to a marvelous array of masks and costumes by Robert Croghan, the animal kingdom isn't shortchanged, either. While Caird is busily turning the opening chapters of Genesis into a soap opera, spotlighting the kindred spirits of Eve and Cain, Schwartz brings us back to the grandeur of creation.

Needless to say, it's tricky business pulling together a musical whose creative team is often pulling apart in two different directions. From a design standpoint, the polish and spectacle of this Eden eclipses CP's premiere effort at Pease Auditorium, our Show of the Year back in 1999.

But in terms of capturing the pristine, sacred spirit of this very special musical, the Halton Theater edition must settle for runner-up position despite its eye-popping splendors. Although the new sound system was operating nearly flawlessly at the Sunday matinee -- dropouts only evident on Cain's mic and no annoying thumps -- about 60 percent of the storytellers' lyrics were unintelligible. The remaining 40 percent often meant very little, and the effort to understand it pretty much spoiled the choral magic.

Aided by the richly evocative lighting design by Gary Sivak and the high peaks Croghan can build into his set design at Halton -- luxuries unavailable at panoramic Pease -- Jerry Colbert nearly matches the majestic command Stephen Ware gave us as the Father in '99. You don't need to decipher every single word to be caught up in the power of creation as the Father conjures up a universe amid an orchestra and a chorus at full throttle. Nor will you resist the charms of "The Naming" as the Almighty deigns to take dictation while Adam and Eve name the beasts of the field, the crawlers on the ground and the flyers in the sky.

But until he stopped the rains, I felt very little of the paternal love and compassion the Creator should shower on his children. Those who haven't been imprinted by Ware's exploits will also have an easier time ingesting the wig and beard they've fitted on Colbert to ease his transition between Johnny Guitar and divinity.

No such ghosts haunt Casey Barrett and Chelsea Lovett as Adam and Eve, though I wouldn't mind a smidge more chemistry between our first parents. I was pleased with the Luke Skywalker sheen that Barrett bestowed on the original sinner, and Lovett is an electrifying (if not always intelligible) vocalist. We get a second coming of Lovett when she reappears as Mama Noah, capped by a bravura rendition of "Ain't It Good?" when the rains desist. She's a little too eager to show off her Whitney Houston mode of gospel jubilation, but that's showbiz.

Craig Estep surpassed my expectations as Noah, and JR Jacobs triumphed as Cain despite the wayward mic he had to wear and the indifferent songs he had to sing. Marc Bastos, on the other hand, succumbs to the sheer white-bread ordinariness of the obedient Abel. Equally blameless is Jeffrey Ostermueller as Noah's rebellious son Japheth, though he does spark briefly in his love duet with Yonah.

OK, so maybe the role of Yonah is the prophet Jonah in obvious drag, but with Sarah Stevens performing it with such soulful ardor, it's sacrilege to snicker. Do that when you behold the green quintet -- moonlighting from the chorus -- who slink across the stage as the Snake.

Of course, the entire chorus moonlights as the animals boarding the ark, regally parading down the aisles. With Lion King still in residence at the Belk, Charlotte is quite a zoo these days. If you've never seen the homegrown handiwork of CPCC Summer Theatre, you'll find it couples quite nicely with the Disney tour.

Greensboro With Envy

We may not have a world-class performing arts festival in the Queen City, but from Memorial Day weekend through early August, we're surrounded by them. If it isn't already on your shortlist of tempting delectations, add the Eastern Music Festival to that select Carolina circle that includes Spoleto USA, the American Dance Festival and the Brevard Music Festival.

Sue and I were invited to sample the annual Greensboro celebration, which takes over Guilford College from June 14 to July 28, including five full weeks of daily programming. We selected five nights last week, allowing us to enjoy the artistry of Hilary Hahn, Anonymous 4, Julia Fischer, Gerard Schwarz and 12-year-old phenom Sirena Huang.

Atmosphere on the quaint campus is anything but pretentious. Hahn jammed and duetted with folkie songwriter-guitarist Josh Ritter. Anonymous 4 shed its holy a capella and shared the Dana Auditorium stage with Turtle Island fiddler Darol Anger. Even more disarming, violinist Julia Fischer preceded her performance of the Glazunov concerto with a masterclass, tutoring three of the best high schoolers who make up the precocious Festival Orchestra.

You can still catch Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway in the festival's final week, and Schwarz returns with Barry Douglas for the Saturday night finale. Or head downtown to Triad Stage for EMFfringe concerts, Thursday through Saturday, featuring The Waybacks, The Mammals, and Tish Hinojosa.

Overachievers of the Festival Orchestra bow out with Stravinsky's Petrushka this Friday. That concert offers a peep at CSO maestro candidate James Gaffigan as he leads the kids in the "Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah" by Saint-Saens and a suite from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

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