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In the Beginning is a musical bomb

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
Why did I see this show? How come I rode BART out to Concord, suffered abuse from a suburban bus driver, got lost in a sprawling shopping center, and then sat still for a musical by the guy who scored Titanic? I never go to musicals. The last one I went to -- Les Miz -- I walked out on. What was going through my head?

Well, first, I try to work against my own grain sometimes. Musicals can't all be bad, right? Expand your horizons! I also tend not to go to Concord, so I thought I'd give the Willows Theater a chance, especially since the company is gambling on a show that hasn't been tested on Broadway. In the Beginning world-premiered two years ago in, of all places, Maine.

The concept had promise, too. A forgotten tribe of non-Jews moves haplessly through the books of Genesis and Exodus, completing gaps in the biblical record. (There were, remember, other vague tribes in Eden for Cain and Abel to mingle with. They had to mate with someone.) The story sounded like a movie by Mel Brooks, and since most musicals are sappy, I thought the demands of such an absurd idea would keep sentimental garbage to a minimum.

But no.

It starts at the very beginning, with God in his perch ordering a demolition team of angels to light a huge bomb for the Big Bang. The angels have fluffy wings, hard hats, and cigars. After a loud explosion, the round bomb (by "Acme Bombs") swings around to become a colorful map of the Earth. Behind it, onstage, an idyllic Garden of Eden fills with singing humans. Each wears a long T-shirt or toga labeled, "No clothes on," or "Nude." The Fall of Man occurs during the opening number (Adam and Eve have nonspeaking roles), and afterward the whole population of Eden gets herded out to the wilderness. So far so good: Nothing exceptionally funny has happened, but the tone is also not maudlin. Let's see what happens when the characters start telling jokes.

The first thing they do is realize they're naked. They split into groups (boys and girls) and make jokes about the opposite sex. The men agree not to discuss their feelings with the women -- "Or ask for directions!" -- and the women show an early penchant for handbags and shoes. Soon it's decided that men should hunt and women should cook and clean. The book for In the Beginning was conceived, admittedly, 12 years ago, but its jokes are so moldy they seem designed to flatter an even older generation's memories of how men and women behave.

One woman, Arielle, doesn't like her tribe's division of labor, and sings a song about God ("Is Someone Out There"). Then she meets an open-minded stranger, Avi, and falls in love. They become the show's heroes. As the tribe moves from the wilderness to a Babylonian town, then floats in barrels during Noah's flood, and finally slogs over to Egypt with Abraham's people, the ageless Avi and Arielle bear a child and struggle not to become like their ordinary, bickering friends. But Avi has a skeleton in his closet -- in fact, the first skeleton -- which almost destroys their marriage.

The trouble with the show, besides its jokes, is that it has so little through-line. The supposed drama of Avi's secret feels like an afterthought tacked onto a pastiche of Bible gags. Arielle's feminist agenda is never resolved (since the show gets no further than Mount Sinai), but the tribe does find fragments of Moses' tablets, and after its members piece together a few commandments they decide the rules are not bad guidelines for life. The story ends on a note of (and a song called) "Hope," which is rousing, bustling, urgent, and goofy.

Director Richard Elliott assembles a smooth, professional production. Tanya Shaffer has found poise and balance as Arielle -- she's the most comfortable-seeming performer onstage -- and Jon Marshall's Avi breaks down only when he tries to be earnest. CJ Blankenship, Cindy Goldfield, and Melanie Slivka also do well, especially during "The Golden Calf" and the "Nileside Cotillion." Kevin Blackton and George McRae come alive as a couple of gay Egyptian slave-drivers, and Maury Yeston's otherwise uninteresting score has bright moments during the "Cotillion" and the rhythmic xylophone-popping orgy scene.

But other singers and songs are less professional; one of Yeston's numbers even rips off a melody from the Carpenters. (On purpose? Hard to tell.) The whole experience convinced me to lay off musicals for a while.


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