As its annual holiday offering, Phoenix Theatre has fashioned a superb send-up of every cheesy religious musical you've ever seen. That it's done it with a straight musical -- Stephen Schwartz's incredibly tacky Children of Eden, which sets the Book of Genesis to music -- makes the company's latest accomplishment truly notable.
Unfortunately, no one in the opening-night audience appeared to get the joke: that the producers of this show have apparently mounted an intentionally trashy spoof of crummy Christmas pageants. There were no laughs to greet the deliberately hammy acting, the cheapjack costuming, or the derivative dance moves. When the crowd burst into spontaneous, straight-faced applause at the sight of a cardboard elephant, I felt for the platoon of players, who were giving their all to sell campy satire.
Granted, Phoenix Theatre isn't letting on that this Children of Eden is meant to be a parody. Every playhouse employee I spoke with swore the show was dead serious. But I know tongue-in-cheek dance routines when I see them: No credible choreographer asks Biblical characters to perform jazzy bump-and-grind numbers and means it. Ticketholders should have been clued in by the absurdly synchronized steps stomped out by a phalanx of dumpy "dancers." Instead, the audience sat stock-still, confused by the overproduced, underperformed goofiness before them. Except for the people who fled at intermission. Or those who stormed out halfway through the first act.
Those folks, probably incensed that anyone would dare to stand an earnest musical about the Bible on its head, didn't get to see a side-splitting Noah's Ark full of sock-puppet snakes and papier-mâché zebra heads. They missed the Styrofoam Stonehenge, and the groovy Garden of Eden made entirely of torn pantyhose and old neckties.
The producers may have set out to stage a serious interpretation of Schwartz's show, but with lyrics like "Oh, Noah/You go all the way back to the protozoa," and song titles like "Ain't It Good," the temptation to riff probably proved too great. Pretty soon, they were staging a deliberately loopy lampoon, complete with flashpots, an all-animal ballet, and 42 musical numbers that all end the same, with the performers lifting their outstretched arms straight up into the air.
Schwartz's God is a real tyrant; a vengeful meany who destroys entire civilizations and then sings badly rhymed couplets about it. His first creation is Adam who, in this zany production, is married to a cranky refugee from Up With People who defies God by serving cider and giving birth to two gay sons. In fact, nearly every male cast member appears to be "playing gay," and their sibilant line readings act as an amusing reminder of the hissing snake that corrupted the Garden. How arch!
Gail Wolfenden-Steib's mischievous costuming lampoons every horrible, homemade, fourth-grade-musical costume ever sewn by Mom. Her unitarded kangaroos and plaster-headed porcupine are a scream, though not as funny as her Israelites, in their percale-blend tunics, carefully distressed headrags, and Birkenstocks. And it was pure genius to garb God in priest's vestments and to dress Greg Marzullo, who looks exactly like a line drawing, as the title character from Disney's Aladdin.
I worried that high-minded right-wingers would picket this hilarious spoof with cries of sacrilege, but then that nun comedy that's been playing in Scottsdale for eight months got extended through March, so I figure there's a trend in irreligious comedies. On the other hand, Phoenix Theatre better hope that Stephen Schwartz doesn't get word that his very serious musical has been made into a satire of itself. There might be hell to pay.
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