by Adam Cohen
A spectacular New York debut is made in the New York Musical Festival production of “Leaving Eden.” Sarah-Anne Martinez commands the stage as Lilith in this intriguing new musical with book and lyrics by Jenny Waxman, music by Ben Page, and additional music by Ada Westfall.
Lilith, according to a pre-Old Testament midrash (story), was Adam’s first wife. She was Adam’s equal, but when he insisted on dominating her, she leaves him/is banned from the garden. In this production, Martinez’s Lilith is fierce. She prowls the stage learning, questioning, exploring her and Adam’s (Ian Ward) world. This includes everything from food, fire, Father (God), eating animals, kissing and sex. And as Lilith’s knowledge grows, her questions challenge what little she and Adam know. This challenge puts Adam clearly on edge, forcing him to lean into the unseen Father saying so.
The Old Testament tale is interwoven with a modern love triangle between Lily (Janet Krupin), her long-time friend Eve (Gabrielle McClinton), and Lily’s live-in boyfriend Adam (Azudi Onyejekwe). Lily loves both Adam and Eve. She’s also recovering from a hysterectomy, questioning her existence, job, and balancing desire to have children.
Bolting modern life onto the Old Testament tale and weaving in current concerns is a fascinating idea. And the three modern actors (Krupin, McClinton, and Onyejekwe) offer wily, hefty, energy and a through line of backstory to their storyline. Waxman’s book drops in mentions of feminism, financial pressure, sisterhood, healing, and plenty of sexual tension. But the balance towards originality and interest lies in the garden. The exploration and growing complexity of the relationship between Adam and Lilith – especially as her curiosity grows is compelling theater. And Ward and Martinez have a wonderful bond and innocence that is fun to watch. The tension between them grows naturally where the modern world storyline feels forced.
Waxman’s lyrics are witty and dynamic. She pushes the threshold with the rhyming dictionary but in the hands of her capable cast under the direction of Susanna Wolk it pays off promisingly. Ben Page’s music is pleasant but repetitive. More variety – blues, rock, anything but the pharmaceutical commercial muzak we too often get would be great. He does offer up some gems including “Menage a Song” a duet between the Adams and “Universe” a lovely trio with the ladies. You can just feel the performers wanting to break out and the earthbound music quells the overall energy of the production.
Act two generally feels rushed and under-developed. Eve is present in both storylines without full explanation. A lightning quick, well rendered dramatic moment to both stories flows into too frantic movement and an unclean resolution before a full cast song. The build the show deserves just isn’t present.
The gifted cast keeps things moving. Martinez’s performance is a wonder of exploration and knowledge. Her expressive face and body enliven each scene. Ward keeps up, growing increasingly dependent on the rules of Father versus free will to explain things.
Alayna Klein’s scenic design – a ladder, couch, steamer trunk, portal with neon light, and a moon of neon are simple and clean. Amanda Clegg Lyon’s lighting is warm and well done. The Intimacy Director by Veronica Sofia Burt is passionate, comedic, and intense. Director Susanna Wolk walks the fine lines of Waxman’s story, although the denouement feels rushed and lessens in gravitas. Not sure if the cast is rushing but a slower built would be more powerful. There’s a lot of promise within Leaving Eden – the cast, story, and much of the show are engaging and thoughtful. With a greater variety of music, that promise can easily be fulfilled.
Tickets and more information at nymf.org