Stephen Schwartz fans are legion, thanks to the box office dynamo “Wicked” and the jillions of “Godspells” and “Pippins” that give so many stagestruck kids their first real musical theater roles. The buffs were out in full force Monday night at the Kennedy Center for a lavish concert of Schwartz’s 1989 “Children of Eden,” and they roared with approval as headliners Ashley Brown and Jeremy Jordan sang a score that Schwartz has called his favorite.
This one-off — with Schwartz in attendance — was a rare full-bodied look at a show that has never made it to Broadway, and the impressive talent marshaled for this retelling of the Book of Genesis included the Opera House Orchestra, a choir of three dozen, and a dance company that at one point charmingly played animals trekking toward Noah’s ark.
Schwartz is a musical theater staple because he can write big dramatic pop theater songs that can be thrilling to sing. The event really lifted off when Brown (Broadway’s Mary Poppins), playing the inquisitive Eve eyeballing that off-limits Tree of Knowledge, magnetically drove through the pulse-racing “I want” song “The Spark of Creation.”
“Smash” star Jordan — coming soon to a mulitplex near you in the movie version of the musical “The Last Five Years” with Anna Kendrick — followed suit as Cain, angrily and melodically singing the bitter anthem “Lost in the Wilderness.” Pretty quickly you got the idea: the big star turns in the show really do work.
Yet director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, of the KenCen-produced “Ragtime” that migrated to Broadway in 2009, also made a good case for the show’s drama, which tells the Biblical tale of the Creation/The Fall/The Flood both as The Greatest Story Ever Told and as a human-scale family rift. God, for instance, is known more familiarly as “Father,” and if Ron Bohmer brought stentorian pipes to the role, he also brought surprising sensitivity.
The earthly landscapes were suggested by projections at the back of the stage, which was roughly split into thirds between the chorus, the orchestra, and the principals acting and singing the story (occasionally with script in hand). The performance was a bit up and down, even in its basic sound — how much of this near-oratorio wants a real symphonic treatment, and how much should be piano-guitar pop? One slight snag was that the slinky Talking Heads-like refrain of “The Wasteland” never found its funky truest self.
But Dodge gave anyone who might be intrigued some useful hints about what a full production could feel like, even if the battalions assembled for this display would have to be substantially pared down. “Eden” has been derided as hokey; Dodge made it feel dignified. Does that mean it belongs on Broadway? Who knows; glamour aside, Broadway is a stunningly silly and wildly unpredictable little sliver of the entertainment universe.
And anyway the concert was validation enough of the KenCen’s effort, clinched when the consistently splendid Brown propelled the post-flood gospel number “Ain’t It Good?” As the choir stood and joined her, you could see heads bobbing in time all through the Eisenhower theater. For one night, at least, the roof was duly raised.