Saturday, May 22, 2010

Children of Eden: Believing in second chances

Photo Credit: Kate Northern (

Ascending the staircase into Good Sheperd United Methodist on Crescent Street, my palms begin to sweat.

Oh God, I left my Bible at home.  I just took the Lord's name in vain... jeezus... oh wait, I did it again!  Are these shoes okay for church?  How long will the service last?  Can the minister see on my forehead every sin I committed (or at least thought about committing) since last Sunday?

As I check in at the make-shift box office (a table with a clipboard in the lobby), a quick glance to the left reveals an empty sanctuary, and thankfully the crowd meanders in the opposite direction.  My nerves quiet, and I remember that I'm not here for church.  Well, at least not in the Biblical sense...

I'm actually here for the Astoria Performing Arts Center's production of Children of Eden, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Wicked), and book by John Caird (Les Miserables).  And while a beautiful old church may provide the perfect setting for a musical based loosely on the Genesis stories of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, and Noah's Ark, APAC's production is anything but preachy.

Using the framework of those Old Testament tales (The Council of Trent is probably rolling in their graves) the writers quite liberally exhibit artistic license on several deviations from the original scriptures.  But the message of Children of Eden isn't translation, theology, or even salvation.  It's a sometimes anguishing, yet empowering tale of redemption, love, sacrifice, family, and ultimately... free will.

Following tradition with the unique double casting of the American productions of Children of Eden (initially produced in London with a much larger cast), most of the actors double in roles, beautifully signifying the cycle of history repeating itself, and cleverly instrumenting a continuity and fluidity between the first and second act.

This Equity-studded cast is vocally on par with most productions you will find in Manhattan.  A refreshing twist to this off off Broadway staging, however, is the lack of microphones, allowing the audience to simultaneously enjoy Schwartz's aching harmonies as well as the individual voice of whichever actor is arms length away at any given point.  There was something very organic and comforting in being able to hear each individual vocalist within the greater context (somewhat fitting given the musical's themes).  A six-member orchestra elevated above the audience miraculously executes the stunning score, in impressive coordination with the actors (considering their lofty and invisible perch).

James Zanelli (Father) skillfully portrayed God, almost more of a humanly father merely longing to protect his children, even after multiple betrayals and disobediences.  Even though he wasn't necessarily the grandfatherly patriarch I envision for this role, his gorgeous baritone voice soared from tender and velvet to a booming wall of sound literally drowning out the entire cast at times.

Particularly impressive was Joseph Spieldenner in the roles of Adam and Noah.  With uniquely striking, almost Disney hero physical features, he went from quintessential goofy jock and all American boy who likes to play with bugs (Adam in Act 1), to the second act's wise and introspective Noah, faced with the dilemma of protecting his family in light of being apparently forsaken by God.

The exotically pretty Emmy Raven-Lampman also turned out a stellar transition from inquisitive and mischievous, wide-eyed Eve to family pillar and Mama Noah in Act 2.  She flawlessly delivered what is perhaps the most poignant moment of the show, the finale of Act 1.  Just before being called home to her heavenly Father, and standing solo center stage, she exquisitely held the audience in the gentle palm of her hand while lamenting, "you will know heartache, prayers that don't work, and times of bitter circumstances... but I still believe in second chances."

Just like the animals on the ark, the remainder of the cast came in a refreshing array of every shape and color, each with ample vocal chops.  My only semi-disappointment was Alan Shaw's interpretation of Cain and Japheth.  Though he exuded an evident commitment and passion perhaps greater than most others on the stage, his impressive ability to summon streams (Noah-worthy floods, really) of actual tears occasionally became somewhat distracting (he nearly cried the entire show) for a role that, although lost and misguided, could have been played a little less fragile.

Shaw's extremely physical acting sometimes distracted from what I think is probably a gorgeous voice (he had a few memorably tender moments, especially in his lovely chemistry with Yonah, sweetly played by Stacie Bond).  It was particularly unfortunate for a role that's been blessed with some of the show's most beautiful vocals (such as my personal favorite, "Lost in the Wilderness," which teetered on the verge of an almost lack of control at its soaring climax).

Photo Credit: Kate Northern (

Even before the initial curtain, I was extremely impressed with set designer Michael P. Kramer's genius manipulation of a church recreational room and gymnasium.  The stage virtually bisects the room, with multiple platforms at one end (the Ark), a waterfall and doorway at the opposite end, and a circular platform in the center, all bridged by catwalk.  Audience seats are scattered in pockets around the stage, the farthest seat being only five rows back.  Holes in the flooring allow wooden rods to double as staffs, cages, trees, and curtain posts (props by Nicole Gaignat) for the absolutely brilliant and playful shadow puppetry (by Hunter Kaczorowski).

Lighting by Dan Jobbins was masterfully executed.  I somehow forgot I was on a gym floor, gazing at immaculately spotted actors and puppets... no small task, considering the layout of the stage and constant motion of the acting in the round.

I realized just how impressive the innovative sets and props had drawn me in during "A Piece of Eight," the Act 2 number where Yonah is banished from the table and ultimately, the ark.  The actors are literally on the their knees around the circular center stage with table settings before them, but the audience is so intimately drawn into the action that I genuinely felt as though I was sitting at dinner with Noah's family.

Costuming (also by Hunter Kaczorowski) was almost convincingly Biblical, with a nice symbolic utilization of colors.  The Greek chorus of storytellers, even more omniscient and innocent than the earthly rendering of Father, wore white.  Adam and Even began scantily clad in white and green at the inception of Eden, and gradually became more conservatively draped in browns and tans as they acquired knowledge and experience.  The only real distraction were the mismatched assortment of contemporary sandals worn by the cast, a sadly glaring blemish for otherwise seamless visuals.

All in all, it is a truly exceptional production, expertly directed by Tom Wojtunik and vibrantly choreographed by Christine O'Grady.  One of my favorite composers of musical theater, Stephen Schwartz refreshingly combines classic elements such as gorgeous lietmotifs that melodically foreshadow and connect the plot, along with a more contemporary and electric gospel and pop score.  Children of Eden is a simple, yet powerful show to be enjoyed by both veterans and novices to the theater.  The production by APAC, particularly the direction and vocals, was worthy of the Great White Way, and left me walking away quite proud to say that I live in Astoria.

Thanks to an extension, there are still a few shows available, with a final bow on May 29.  At only $18, it would almost be a crime to miss.  If you live in Astoria and love theater, I couldn't recommend a better three hours.  If you live elsewhere and want a refreshingly intimate departure from the sometimes over polished glamour displays in the city, hop on the N or W and get yourself to Queens.

(Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.)

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