By Stanford Friedman
Paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be in Leaving Eden, the new work by emerging writer Jenny Waxman and 20-year-old composer Ben Page that is an entry in this year’s New York Musical Festival. By turns, charming, sexy, melancholy and righteous, this pairing of an ancient myth and a contemporary parable explores the creation of empowerment and the empowerment that comes with creation. Well-intentioned but misguided men fumble around their women. Women choose their fates. But fate, as the poets say, is a bitch.
According to Jewish folklore, Lilith (Sarah-Anne Martinez) was the first wife of Adam (Ian Ward), made from the same earth as he. Bestowed with the divine spark of life and the powers of musical theater, they soon discover fear, death, sex and barbecue, in that order. Adam bows to his God and follows His way, while Lilith rejects the idea that she is beneath her man both whilst lying down and whilst rising up. Soon enough she is cast out in favor of Eve (Gabrielle McClinton), sprung from Adam’s rib, more subservient to his needs, but still with a hankering for the forbidden fruit that Lilith urges her to consume.
Meanwhile, a modern-day couple are having their own problems with giving life and taking control. Lilly (Janet Krupin) is adrift in depression having recently lost her unborn child and unable to try again. Her boyfriend, Adam (Azudi Onyejekwe), loves her but is of little help. They both seek solace from their best friend, Eve (McClinton), but soon realize that they want more from their fertile pal than just sympathy. Things get steamy, and complicated.
Director Susanna Wolk does well in interweaving the two storylines, at first delegating each couple to their own side of the stage, then eventually merging the physical space as the two tales come to a head. Waxman and Page provide some 18 songs, strong reflective solos, though too few meaningful duets. The night’s liveliest number, “Tedious Sects,” is both a humorous rejection of the missionary position and a serious outcry for equal rights as Lilith ponders, “Why create two of us/If only one of us gets his way?” The finale, “Leaving Eden,” is probably also powerful, but it comes right on top of hearing the litany of woes resulting from Eve’s endgame (“In pain you shall bear kin, and your husband will rule over you, for your stupid, selfish sin”) as well as a shocking twist in the modern-day plotline. Processing all of that news stole focus from whatever they were singing on stage.
The entire company turns in strong acting and vocal performances. As Lillith, Ms. Martinez is so engaging and seductive that it barely makes sense for Adam to reject her. Fortunately, Mr. Ward plays the world’s first man with just the right amount of comic cluelessness. Not a dumb brute, just a guy with limitations. Ms. Krupin finds the rightful sadness in Lilly, as well as the proper emotional distance with her Adam and a compelling chemistry with her Eve. Mr. Onyejekwe brings a quiet intensity and soulful tenor to Modern Adam and Ms. McClinton handles her two faces of Eve beautifully, slipping between the breadth of Genesis and the confines of contemporary life as if it were the most natural thing on Earth.
Leaving Eden – Book and Lyrics by Jenny Waxman; Music by Ben Page; Additional Music by Ada Westfall; Directed by Susanna Wolk
WITH: Gabrielle McClinton (Eve), Janet Krupin (Modern Lilly), Sarah-Anne Martinez (Ancient Lilith), Azudi Onyejekwe (Modern Adam), Ian Ward (Ancient Adam)
Whitney Locher (Costume Design), Alayna Klein (Scenic Design), Amanda Clegg Lyon (Lighting Design), Kimberly O’Loughlin (Sound Design), Veronica Sofia Burt (Intimacy Director), Nathan Dame (Music Director), Alexis Nalbandian (Production Stage Manager). The New York Musical Festival at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St., 212.352.3101, http://www.nymf.org/festival/2019-events/leaving-eden#. July 19 at 5:00, July 21 at 5:00 and 9:00. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (1 intermission)