Monday, May 10, 2010

Children of Eden Soars

by Georgina Young-Ellis

Photo by Kate Northern

My jaw literally dropped when I walked into Astoria Performing Arts Center's space on May 7th to see their latest production, Children of Eden. APAC has mastered the art of transforming the church gymnasium that is their venue into fantastical settings for their various productions. But this one, designed by Michael P. Kramer, is the most astonishing so far in the two years they’ve had their home at Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on Crescent Street. The stage area stretches from one end of the enormous room to the other – entrances are made in the front, at the back, on the sides, upstairs and downstairs, while the seats for the audience run along the sides in a kind-of elongated three-quarter round with those in the front row a scant two feet from the action.

The set has a rustic quality: stones and wood that appear to be from an ancient time – appropriately enough, since Children of Eden is the re-telling of the iconic stories from the book of Genesis, in musical form. The music and lyrics were written by Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz, who gave us such shows as Wicked and Godspell, and the Disney movies Pocahontas and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The book is by Les Miserables' John Caird, and is based on a concept by Charles Lisanby.

Beginning from the beginning of biblical time, Father is the first character to appear onstage, and he brings with him light to illuminate the earth. He is soon joined by what seem to be the bringers of night, stars, water, etc., and together they create the world with a lively opening song, "Let There Be." These elemental characters later evolve into the show’s chorus and are responsible for transforming the set into the Garden of Eden, the wasteland beyond Eden, and Noah’s Ark. Each of these performers are versatile singers, dancers and actors, of every color, size and shape. Some of them later take on roles such as Cain and Abel and Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law.

But of course, the first human characters to appear after Father are Adam and Eve, who in the second act become Noah and his wife. I was glad for their continued presence on stage because they are each so delightful in their respective parts. Emmy Raver-Lampman as Eve is as enchanting as the first woman ought to be. Physically beautiful, with an equally beautiful voice, she infuses her character with a combination of exuberant innocence and earthy sensuality. Joseph Spieldenner, playing Adam, is charming in his seeming naivet̩, a powerful singer and actor as well. His Adam is as obedient, and slightly dumb, as Eve is curious, questioning Рa problematic child to her Father. Still, we cannot blame her when she finally succumbs to the temptations of the serpent Рbrilliantly enacted as an ensemble character by the chorus members. The sexy dance number, "In Pursuit of Excellence," is a highlight, the chorus writhing and gyrating as one giant snake.

The first act takes us through the expulsion from the Garden, to the story of Cain and Abel, to the appearance of Adam's third son, Seth, and to Adam’s death. Eve’s final return to her Father, with whom she’s had such a difficult relationship, had the entire audience in tears at the end of the first act with the beautifully delivered title song by Ms. Raver-Lampman and Company.

The second act brought us the family of Noah obediently building the ark, though not knowing exactly why or what would ultimately happen. Miraculously, the animals begin to appear two by two - a show-stopping romp. The wonderful physicality of the chorus members who portray the folksy animal puppets in the song, "The Return of the Animals," is as hilarious as it is astonishing - equally so the reaction of Noah’s family as the animals come aboard. As the deluge comes, and then continues unabated for so long, the family questions why God would punish them in such a way. Yonah, lovingly portrayed by the gifted Stacie Bono, is a daughter of the tribe of Cain who has stowed away on the boat at the behest of Noah’s son, Shem. When the family discovers her, they blame her for bringing God’s wrath upon them. But finally the dove comes to bring them a sign of land; the flood is abating. It is at this moment in the show that we are made to think about the earth's fragility. Is it because of God that destruction and calamity occur or is it our doing? My interpretation: we have the free will to stop the man-made disasters, but perhaps the natural ones are in someone else's hands. The song "Ain't It Good," a Gospel-type number, is one of hope and liberation, gloriously led by Ms. Raver-Lampman.

The final piece, "In the Beginning," is sung by the remarkable James Zannelli, who plays Father. His moving performances through-out the show bring us face to with a parent who wants the best for his beloved children and cannot understand why they would want to rebel against his loving protection. We do not need to be religious to relate - either as children or parents or both. The themes of this show are universal: will we destroy the gift of the planet that we were given or will we honor it? Will we live obediently as part of a family unit or will we strike out on our own to see what the world holds?

Director Tom Wojtunik assisted by a team of technicians and artists that outnumber the seats in theater, in particular Choreographer Christine O'Grady, Musical Director Lilli Wosk, Costume and Puppet Designer Erica Steiner, and Lighting Designer Dan Jobbins, have created an exquisitely unique theatrical experience that should resonate whether you are a lover of musical theater or not. Reserve tickets now at The show runs only until May 22nd, and is sure to sell out before you know it.

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