Emmy Raver-Lampman and Joseph Spieldenner in APAC's Children of Eden.
BOTTOM LINE: A moving production of one of the best musicals that never made it to Broadway, and at $18, you get far more than you pay for.
Ok, I'll admit it: ever since I saw a staged concert version of Children of Eden a few years back, it has been my favorite Stephen Schwartz piece by far, and ranks high in my list of top musicals. I love the way the show juxtaposes the story of Adam and Eve (and later Cain and Abel) with that of Noah's Ark, with both stories focusing on the difficulties of parenthood, of wanting to protect your children, and of not knowing when to let them go. God here is called simply "Father," highlighting the parallels between the various parent-child relationships (Father-Adam, Eve-Cain, Noah-Japheth, etc.) Double-casting also emphasizes these parallels: Adam and Noah are played by the same actor, as are Eve and Noah's wife, and Cain and Noah's son Japheth. Schwartz wisely uses recurring musical themes to further communicate the various ties between characters. The often exciting score has several wonderful solos, especially Cain's angry "Lost in the Wilderness," Yonah's wistful "Stranger to the Rain," and Mama Noah's rousing gospel finale "Ain't It Good." Yet the chorus also plays a crucial role, both commenting on the main action and singing some of the show's most beautiful music.
The Astoria Performing Arts Center's production is significantly pared down - there are only 19 cast members, as opposed to other productions which have used anywhere from 60 to over 100 performers. However, if APAC's resources are limited, they use what they have brilliantly. Michael P. Kramer's multi-tiered set sprawls through the playing space; it seems as if there is always a performer within arm's reach. Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes are suitably biblical, and Dan Jobbins's lighting deftly communicates the ever-changing mood of the piece, while also focusing the audience's attention. And Kaczorowski's puppetry work is delightfully simple and chooses wit over complexity; my only complaint is that there was not enough of it.
If not everyone in the company has Broadway-caliber pipes, at least the show's three leads have powerful voices. Joseph Spieldenner plays Adam/Noah, and is as believeable as the naïve namer of animals as he is the stern taskmaster who must carry out Father's will. James Zannelli plays Father; while I loved hearing his voice soar, there was something about his presence that just doesn't seem God-like enough for me (although I admit, God is obviously a difficult role). My personal favorite is Emmy Raver-Lampman, who as Eve brilliantly moves from the wide-eyed wonder and curiosity of young Eve to the melancholy, yet unrepentant woman who has been kicked out of Paradise. Eve's final monologue and song at the end of Act 1 is incredibly moving, and Raver-Lampman performs it brilliantly, simply standing still on stage, simultaneously filled with both strength and exhaustion. It is without a doubt the most memorable scene in the entire production. Likewise, Raver-Lampman, as Mama Noah, sings a terrific "Ain't It Good" at the end of Act 2; I only wish she had a microphone, since she is almost impossible to hear once the chorus joins in (more on that in a bit). Stacie Bono (Yonah), Alan Shaw (Cain/Japheth) and Stephen Gelpi (Abel/Ham) are also quite good. If their voices are not as strong as those of the three leads, they are still incredibly appealing, and all three actors give heartfelt, impassioned performances.
Director Tom Wojtunik chose to stage Children of Eden pretty much in the round; the center of the set is a circular platform, from which two walkways jut (the audience sits on either side of one walkway). At times, this allows for some thrilling staging; for example, Wojtunik emphasizes the ritualistic aspects of death and sacrifice by having the company surround the center circle, drumming the floor, in the scene where Cain murders Abel (they repeat this blocking for the parallel fight scene in Act 2).
However, Wojtunik's staging takes away much of what is great about this piece - namely, the lush choral music. This is not the fault of the company, who blend beautifully. But the blend is only apparent when they are grouped together, far away from wherever you are sitting. If you have a chorus member standing next to you, singing one of the many harmonies, the choral blend (and sometimes even the main melody) becomes almost impossible to hear. And when a soloist is backed by a large chorus, but is standing across the stage while several chorus members stand in between, she, through no fault of her own, gets lost. While I love the unamplified sound of this production, a microphone here or there might have helped matters. Or else, if Wojtunik had chosen a more traditional, proscenium staging, we might have been able to properly hear both the soloist and full chorus.
That said, this is a moving, often beautiful production, one that is appropriately both honest and sincere. Sadly, Children of Eden has never been produced on Broadway- it first premiered in London in 1991 (without the now requisite double-casting), and was also produced at New Jersey's Papermill Playhouse in 1998 (recordings exist of both productions). If some might think a Broadway production has not occurred because of the necessity for a huge cast, APAC's production proves that the material is just as effective with far less people on stage. (One scene- the parade of animals onto the Ark- might be more exciting with more people, but again, I think this could also be improved with a more consolidated approach to the staging). As popular as Children of Eden seems to be with community theatre groups, it is almost never performed in New York. Perhaps this is because Children of Eden is not hip, or trendy, or edgy; if you are looking for this, or have an antipathy to Bible stories, I'd suggest going elsewhere. But if you'd like to see a talented company in a musical that both universalizes and humanizes these overly familiar creation myths, then take the N/W train to Astoria and check out Children of Eden.
(Children of Eden plays at the Good Shepard United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent Street, in Astoria, through May 22, 2010. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, and Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased by calling 866.811.4111, or online at www.apacny.org.)