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The complex and detail-laden musical “Children of Eden,” the season-ending production from the Astoria Performing Arts Center, is not your average Jesus Christ Superstar staged in a church basement — which is a respectable undertaking, but this show takes community theater to another level.

This full-length, full-costumed, ambitious production, with book by John Caird and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, highlights professional actors from a variety of backgrounds, performing a take on the classic biblical stories of Adam and Eve in Act I, and Noah’s Ark in Act II.

You don’t need to be religious to enjoy the universal themes in this production. The conflicts and soul-searching the characters experience are relatable to everyone. In addition, the singing, staging and lighting effects are enough of a reason to go. Although composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz is famous for Broadway hits such as “Wicked,” his creation “Children of Eden” never quite made it to the Great White Way.

Tom Wojtunik, APAC’s artistic director and the director of this production, provides the audiences with a sense of what the show would have been like if it were on Broadway. The spectacle of Broadway is not only based on talent, but on the grandeur of the set. The production does not fall short on this, with a multi-dimensional, multi-level, ingeniously crafted set, taking up almost the entire room. The actors utilize every area of the space, and the audience is right in the center of the action. If the set revolved, this show could easily be visualized on a Broadway stage.

The number of characters, the limited dialogue and the length of the show —clocking in at just under three hours — are similar in nature to the popular epic musical. If you are a fan of musicals by Stephen Schwartz, you will not be disappointed, as the songs run consecutively, and he incorporates the musical stylings from his other shows into “Children of Eden.”

The character of God, or Father, played by James Zannelli, helps us to understand how the concept of religion was founded and how worship began. The Father teaches the rules of morality to his children, and learns in return that sometimes children develop their own thoughts and personalities and don’t always act within the expectations of the parent.

The stories are also about acceptance and learning to love your children in spite of their faults and decisions. They are moral tales for all audiences, whether one is a parent or child, there is a lesson in it for all. In this show, the Father is more feared than loved. Zannelli’s booming voice places more judgment on each situation than insight and wisdom. However, his physical movements contradict his words and leave the audience to question his true intentions.

Joseph Spieldenner stars as Adam and Noah and carries the show from start to finish. He is a tremendous actor whose previous work includes vocally demanding starring roles in Rodgers and Hammerstein classics and in “Miss Saigon.” The audience can truly tell the differences and the correlations between his interpretations of Adam and Noah. There are subtle similarities in each of the characters, which Spieldenner makes very clear. Both of the characters Spieldenner plays struggle with Godly mandates and human loyalties, but we can see the difference in approach based on age and maturity.

Alan Shaw, who plays Cain and Japheth, the sons of Adam and Noah respectively, rocks the stage with some of the most vocally intricate songs of the evening. Both Spieldenner and Shaw have Broadway-caliber voices.

Solid belter Emmy Raver-Lampman stands out as Eve in Act I, opposite Spieldenner, and charming Stacie Bono shines as Yonah in Act II, opposite Shaw. In both scenarios, the audience senses that their love is real. It’s not just a kiss on the cheek between these star-crossed lovers; it genuinely means something to them. The characters of Adam in Act I and Japheth in Act II are willing to sacrifice everything for love, and both actors portray this convincingly.

Besides the principal actors, there is a large ensemble that plays multiple characters, including animals. Each member of the cast is memorable, sings well and embraces the audience with energy and enthusiasm. All movements are synchronized with music and lighting, which makes this show even more of a surprising spectacle.

The wealth of talent behind this show should prove irresistible to religious and secular audiences alike, who will enjoy and relate to the themes of “Children of Eden.”

If You Go

Children of Eden

When: May 8-22; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Cost: $18

Where: The Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30-44 Crescent St., Astoria

Contact: 866-811-4111

Web site: www.apacny.org

Updated 5:50 pm, October 10, 2011
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