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'Up From Paradise': biblical themes in contemporary dress

Up From Paradise Musical by Arthur Miller (book and lyrics) and Stanley Silverman (music). Directed by Ran Avni.

A musical with a curious history has launched the tenth season of the Jewish Repertory Theatre on East 14th Street. ''Up From Paradise,'' as it is called, began life in 1972 as ''The Creation of the World and Other Business,'' an Arthur Miller exegesis on parts of the book of Genesis. The cast included such estimable actors as Bob Dishy, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen Elliott, and George Grizzard. But Mr. Miller's ''Creation'' was poorly received and closed after 20 performances. In the intervening years Mr. Miller has revised the the original script. With Stanley Silverman's responsive score, the work has been converted into a kind of chamber musical, a sophisticated biblical entertainment in a contemporary mode.

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Latter-day allusions and relevance are emphasized in the directorial and visual concept chosen by Ran Avni for the production at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. The men in the cast wear dinner jackets, giving the show a cabaret touch. Eve (Alice Playten) is confined, however, to simple dresses. Which would seem to accept the immemorial view that - paradise or no paradise - Eve's place is in the home.

A member of one preview audience observed, ''There are no surprises here.'' That states the problem of ''Up From Paradise'' as dramatic fare. One of Mr. Miller's solutions is to mingle naive Adamic remarks (''Are we going to name more things today?'') with a touch of psychoanalysis in the cases of Cain and Abel and an imaginary extension of the conflict between the Lord (Len Cariou) and Lucifer (Walter Bobbie), who sports red tie and suspenders.

''Up From Paradise'' is playful but not frivolous, sophisticated but not superficial. Mr. Miller has brought to it the earnest commitment and conviction that enable an appreciative cast and perceptive director to create sharply realized characters from this humanist version of a scriptural account that holds deep meanings for the Judeo-Christian world. In its treatment of the allegorical creation, of Adam and Eve, and of Cain and Abel, ''Up From Paradise'' presents a timeless domestic situation, a comic and serious fantasy about an anthropomorphic God and his errant children, the first family's exile from paradise, and how the race of Adam came to be as it is.

Stanley Silverman's score embellishes the fable with a variety of songs. They range from the annunciatory ''The Lord is a Hammer of Light,'' performed by a trio of kibitzing angels, to the climactic finale, ''Never See the Garden Again, '' chorused by the nine cast members. Mr. Silverman draws on assorted musical modes: pop-ecclestiastical (with ''Hallelujahs'' galore), piano-bar chic, blues, gospel, ragtime, and even a gritty gesture to Brecht-Weill.

With Mr. Cariou's strong vocalism setting the tone, the musical performance is generally excellent. Miss Playten is at first naively touching and later touchingly maternal as Eve. Though somewhat weak in the vocal department, Austin Pendleton portrays a suitably deferential Adam. Adam's boys are sturdily played by Paul Ukena Jr. (Cain) and Lonny Price (Abel). Mr. Bobbie's Lucifer is a furiously intense and contentious about-to-be-fallen angel. A word of praise is due the seraphic trio: Raymond Murcell, Avery J. Tracht, and Richard Frisch. The Verona Winds quintet, conducted by Michael Ward at the piano, provides splendid accompaniment.

Although Mr. Miller's jocular liberties may prove too flippant for some and his perceptions not profound enough for others, ''Up From Paradise'' deserves the care and skill Mr. Avni and his colleagues have lavished on it. Michael C. Smith's all-black setting suggests a nightclub stage, with an impressionistic screen to deepen the background. Marie Ann Chiment is credited with the tuxedos for the Old Testament males and for Eve's less classy wardrobe. The lighting is by Dan Kinsley.

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