Max von Essen, Darius de Haas, Kate Shindle,Jonathan Dokuchitz, and Julia Murney in Children of Eden(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Max von Essen, Darius de Haas, Kate Shindle,
Jonathan Dokuchitz, and Julia Murney in Children of Eden
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
The one-night-only benefit concert of Stephen Schwartz's Children of Eden at Riverside Church was the theatrical equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille production, complete with a cast of thousands. Well, actually, it was a cast of more than 100, but let's not quibble: A huge chorus filled the front of the church and their rising voices were a heavenly match for the vaulted ceiling of this exquisite edifice. At the head of a cast of biblical characters were Julia Murney, Jonathan Dokuchitz, Norm Lewis, Darius de Haas, Laura Benanti, and Kate Shindle to name just a few of the production's impressive gallery of singers. Presented on World AIDS day, the concert raised money for the National AIDS Fund and the York Theatre. It was an inspired and inspiring evening of entertainment.

Turning the Book of Genesis into a resonant story of family, complete with rebellious children who defy their fathers in every generation, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz and librettist John Caird created a compelling tale. Producer/director Jamie McGonnigal brought it to life with his spot-on casting of the strong-willed Eve in the person of Julia Murney. From volcanic low notes to gale-force highs, her performance verged on the miraculous; not only was her singing thrilling, her delicious sense of humor was as crisp as an apple.

Murney stopped the show with her renditions of "The Spark of Creation" and "Ain't It Good," but she wasn't the only standout. Darius de Haas also stirred the audience to wild applause, singing "Lost in the Wilderness" with a throbbing ferocity. Jonathan Dokuchitz brought humor to his portrayal of Adam but was moving in his conflict at having to choose between God, the Father, and Eve, his lover, as he tore through "A World Without You." Later in the show (and the Bible), Kate Shindle wowed the crowd with "Stranger to the Rain." This exemplary cast turned Children of Eden into a true religious experience -- especially if your religion happens to be musical theater.

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Tonya Pinkins and Harrison Chadin Caroline, or Change(Photo © Michal Daniel)
Tonya Pinkins and Harrison Chad
in Caroline, or Change
(Photo © Michal Daniel)
A Change for the Better

There are three great elements in Caroline, or Change, the new musical at the Public Theater. First there's the title, which is layered with multiple meanings that become clear only after one has seen the show. Second, Tonya Pinkins as Caroline gives a searing performance, singing with soul-stirring defiance. In fact, the entire cast is sensational. Finally, George C. Wolfe has directed this ambitious opus like a man possessed.

The temporal setting of this story is as important as its geographical location: Louisiana in 1963, right before and after the assassination of President Kennedy. The action centers around the maid, Caroline (Pinkins), and Noah (Harrison Chad), the young boy in the family she serves. Noah's stepmother (Veanne Cox) tries to teach the boy a lesson about the value of money by telling him that if he doesn't empty his pockets of loose change before putting his clothes in the laundry, the maid can keep whatever coins she finds. Out of this comes a tale of sorrow and shame when the boy accidentally leaves in his pants pocket a Hanukkah present of a $20 bill, which represents a large percentage of the maid's salary.

This is no musical for dummies. Its mistakes come from over-reaching, not from simplifying or pandering. Though not entirely through-sung, Caroline, or Change verges on being a sort of blues operetta. Jeanine Tesori's music is the stronger, more vibrant element of the score; Tony Kushner's lyrics certainly drive the story, which acknowledges both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, but they spike from awesome to awkward. Despite its high drama, the show is more artful than emotional, yet there is a ruthless honesty about it that one has to admire.

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Tom D'Angora(Photo © Ben Strothmann)
Tom D'Angora
(Photo © Ben Strothmann)
Nightlife Notes

When so many musical theater lovers hearken to the divas of the past from Merman to Streisand, it's reassuring to learn that young theater lovers are finding their own divas in contemporary Broadway fare. Enter Tom D'Angora with his raucously loving cabaret act at Don't Tell Mama called Diva's I've Done. D'Angora's broadsword humor cuts a wide swath, revealing his passions for shows like Aida and Jane Eyre, as well as their stars. The amusing shtick of his act is a recreation of all of his favorite diva moments, followed by an audience vote for the greatest diva of them all. D'Angora is a tall, good looking, young man, yet his appeal in performance is that of an affectionate puppy dog. That endearing presence goes a long way toward carrying this light spoof through its paces. The show, complete with backup singers, may be seen again at Don't Tell Mama on Sunday, December 28 at 8pm.

Jeanne Resua
Jeanne Resua
Jeanne Resua is a stunning blond with a jazz bent that ain't broke. Her recent act at The Duplex, Turn on the Heat, sizzled and smoldered in the title song (De Sylva/Brown/Henderson) and a combo of "Some Cats Know" with "Don Juan" (both by Leiber/Stoller) in which she was both sexy and funny -- always the best way to (under)play this sort of material. Particularly impressive was Resua's versatility. For instance, she slid from jazz to blues in her musical director Dave Brunetti's delicious take on "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" coupled with "St. Louis Blues." But she was, perhaps, most effective in her ballads because this woman can act. Her rendition of "She Must Be Beautiful" was a stunner, as was her combo of "You Must Believe in Spring" and "The Rose." The program was a bit too medley heavy -- but, having said that, we'll go on to say that it's highlight was a romantic arc that began with "It Never Entered My Mind," then swooned through "He Was Too Good to Me" and poignantly ended with "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." Adroitly directed by Ron Cohen, Resua's show did more than make a spash; it made waves!