BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Governor Livingston Hilltop Players are well into rehearsal for their upcoming production, Stephen Schwartz’s “Children of Eden.” The show is March 21-23, at 7:30 p.m.

“Children of Eden” tells the Biblical story of Genesis, but emphasizes universal themes such as family ties, love, and loss, instead of telling the story from a religious perspective. The musical presents the classic tales of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark with a fresh twist, and, of course, lots of singing and dancing along the way.

Co-Directors Joe Miceli and Christine Talarico spoke to The Alternative Press about their decision to put on Children of Eden at GL this year.

“We definitely love the story and think it has a lot of beautiful themes, and lyrics and music," Talarico said. "We also thought this show suited the group of people that we have in the GL theater program. This cast has bought
into what this show means in the same way that we as directors have bought into what it means. Children of Eden is a hard show, so it matters that everyone involved believes in these universal themes as much as we do.”

Miceli agreed.

“We also decided to do Children of Eden because we’d both seen it before but had never gotten to do it ourselves," he said. "There is a lot of depth to this show, and there’s not just a religious storyline. The show explores universal themes. Every audience member will connect to something in Children of Eden.”

The Hilltop Players are stepping up to the challenge of putting on such an all-encompassing show. Says Kevin Connolly, a junior who plays the role of “Father," “I’ve been involved with a lot of great theater here at GL, and this show should be really great too. Everyone is truly doing their part and is actively involved, and that matters.”

There are plenty of parts and ways to get involved with every GL production, as Musical Director Nicholas O’Sullivan points out.

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“The musical is the school activity which involves the most departments," O’Sullivan said. "TV Crew films the productions. The Pit Orchestra, which draws from band and orchestra, plays the show’s music. A lot of the cast sings in the GL Choir. We get GL artists involved with the sets, along with the stage crew, of course. The musical
brings a lot of the high school together.”

There are over 30 cast members from the high school, and an additional 10 Berkeley Heights elementary school children.

O’Sullivan and Assistant Musical Director Lindsay Mirabella oversee a pit orchestra of 15 GL student musicians and two faculty musicians, Steven Hess and William Ayres.

Rachel Zhu, a junior who plays piano in the pit, summarized a typical pit practice.

“We’ve been rehearsing for around 2 or 3 weeks every day, and we met twice a week before then," she said. "Normally, Mr. O’Sullivan, the musical director, assigns us a bunch of songs to work through, and then we try to cover that for the rehearsal.”

Connolly added that “This show is extremely musical - there are 43 songs, plus dialog in between. It’s a lot, but it moves smoothly. It is always a fun challenge to incorporate the live music into the show along with the live singing and all the scenes.”

Prior to rehearsing with the pit, the cast attended frequent vocal rehearsals with the musical directors to learn the musical’s many songs. They also learned the complex blocking and dances that go along with the music. Three hours per week of rehearsal were dedicated to dance, with Choreographer Melissa Kaban. Says freshman Alec Feinsot of the rehearsal process, “Sometimes it takes a while to get everything down pat, but in the end it’s going to be a really rewarding product that everyone is going to like.”

While the cast and pit were busy rehearsing, the Stage Crew, headed by Ken Stiefel, was hard at work constructing the set. The crew, also assisted by the stage manager, senior Casey Krause, had a unique task this year: building 25 puppets. The puppets are the silhouettes of some of the animals that journey with Noah and his family on the Ark, during Act II. All of the silhouette-puppets are life-sized, including a pair of giraffes.

The GL TV Crew, headed by Joe Vorhees, films all of the Hilltop Players’ productions, and also provides microphones and audio/lighting to enhance audience experience of the shows. One of the three performances will offer ASL interpretation.

Parent volunteers and members of CAST (Berkeley Heights’ Creative Arts Support Team) coordinate rehearsal dinners, ticket sales, fundraising, hair and makeup, and help in numerous other ways to ensure a smooth transition from rehearsal to performance.

As opening night draws nearer, rehearsals get longer and more intense. The cast has learned the music, blocking, and dances; the backstage work is nearing completion. While dress rehearsals and technical rehearsals are certainly opportunities to solidify these basics, this is also a time for more creative work. The Alternative Press asked several cast members about the process of  "getting into character."

“I play a different character in each act of the show," said junior Steven LaMaita. "Initially I play Adam, who is very childlike at the beginning. But then Adam grows up, and I have to be able to transform him into a father figure. In Act II, I become Noah, a more troubled father who is having difficulties dealing with his family’s decisions and their fate. It’s interesting; it’s a lot of fun to really get into the mind of each character and to discover who they truly are.”

Connolly said his role is a challenge.

“I play Father, who is essentially God. I feel a little bit nervous about playing God, because…how do you really play God? It’s definitely a challenging role," he said. "You have to convey that you’re there at all times. Basically, you have to be everything.”

Junior Mukta Phatak plays Eve in Act I and Mama Noah (Noah’s wife) in Act II. She emphasized the parallels between her characters’ journeys and those of Adam and Noah. She added that “Eve is also very curious, initially in a childlike way, but she later seeks answers to her questions in a way that simultaneously enriches her life and causes trouble. She passes what she calls her ‘spark of creation’ along to her son Cain.”

Cain is played by senior Craig Thomas, who also plays the role of Japheth (in Act II). Senior Zach Friedlander plays Abel, and, later, Ham. Yonah, a descendant of Cain and a servant to Noah’s family, is played by senior Bridget Crisonino. Senior Sam Muriello plays Seth/Shem, junior Abby Warde plays Aphra, and freshman Abby Hawkins plays Aysha. The Snake is portrayed by Arthur Mezzo, Maggie Ambrose, Bridget Crisonino, Sam Muriello, Issy Perrin, Helen Thomaides, and Abby Warde.

There are many featured soloists in addition to the main characters, along with the Storytellers, who take the place of the ensemble and narrate the story.

The Alternative Press spoke to several other cast members about the overall experience of being in a GL musical:

Mukta Phatak (junior): “The rehearsal process for every GL production is strenuous but fun. It gets me through a long day at school because it’s really fun to be with everyone in the cast at rehearsals.”

Abby Hawkins (freshman): “It’s my first experience in GL shows, and I love it. It’s super fun, just being able to meet a lot of new people. Children of Eden is going to be really great.”

Courtney Smalley (senior): “This is my first time being in a GL show, which is something I’ve wanted to do since I was a freshman, but I was too scared. I decided that before I graduated I wanted to try out, so I did. This is really exciting for me, and it’s a great experience. If you want to do it, then just go for it.”

Ellie Lieck (sophomore): “I’ve done the fall play twice at GL, but this is my first time in the musical. The musical can be a lot more work, but I like it. The work is paying off. The show has great people involved with it, and great people running it.”

The Hilltop Players will perform “Children of Eden” at Governor Livingston High School on March 21, 22 and 23. All performances begin at 7:30 p.m. The theater has assigned seating only. As part of a limited-time offer, GL students only may purchase discounted tickets (information can be found on FirstClass). The regular ticket cost is $15 per adult, $12 per child/senior. Tickets are selling quickly and may be purchased by emailing hilltop@bhpsnj.org.