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THEATER REVIEW : Rock and the Bible : 'Acts' is a handy, music-happy Christian primer for Muslims, Jews and sundry non-Christians.

July 16, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times.

You might have thought that "Jesus Christ, Superstar" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" had pretty much covered the biblical rock opera genre--for a while anyway.

But Bible stories and rock music seem made for each other again with "Acts," inspired by the New Testament's book of Acts, premiering in the 358-seat Pierce College Theater in Woodland Hills. (The college has no connection with the production, which enjoys the luster of a professional musical.)

Co-composers and co-lyricists Jerry Cahill and Jim Ineson developed and briefly performed the material last year at Prince of Peace Church in Woodland Hills. The show is essentially a sequel to "Jesus Christ, Superstar," dramatizing the stormy founding of the Christian church in the immediate years after the crucifixion of Christ. The three central characters are the disciple Peter (Bert Anderson), the apostle Paul (Aumi Katz) and Mary Magdalene (Bonnie Robertson). They are a talented trio, with Katz possessing a sterling voice.

But the cast is 38 members strong, including a host of Roman centurions, roving Gentiles, surly high priests, angry Jews and the debauched, mad Emperor Nero (the humorously fey Michael Jay Aronovitz).

As for its relevance, this being multicultural Los Angeles (the all-white audience notwithstanding), the show is a handy, rock-happy Christian primer for Muslims, Jews and sundry non-Christians who care to venture to the Pierce College Theater.

The show also makes the founding of the Christian church nominally entertaining and accessible to children without the stony icons associated with Sunday School.

Well, almost. Whenever the show gets serious and high-toned (about one-quarter of the time), it tends to wrap itself in noble ballads with robed characters stiffly grouped as if posing for a yearbook picture. At such times, you feel as if you're attending choir practice instead of a rock musical.

But then along comes a vaudeville number (notably "The Roman Hootchy Coo," hilariously performed by the antic John Palacio as the nimble Roman Marcus Antonious Felix, the dancing governor of Judea) or a flash of Vegas glitz (check out those undulating Temptresses who bedazzle and lure the stout-hearted Paul in the sexually obsessed Corinth).

Biblical movie-maker Cecil B. DeMille, who knew full well the value of mixing sex and piety, would be proud. But DeMille never made you laugh. Neither did "Jesus Christ, Superstar," for that matter. Here, Cahill and Ineson, with a big assist from director Jon Berry and choreographer Red Savage, are showmen enough to occasionally make you confuse a scene in "Acts" with that other famous Roman opus, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Yes, this show has a little bit of everything, complete with a rousing first-act curtain-closer, "Set Your Soul on Fire." And for once, here's a rock musical in which the acoustics are so clear you never fail to discern all the lyrics.

Set design by Ken Curtis is serviceable, and the costumes, designed by Don Nelson, are richly textured.

Ultimately, the production's spiritual undertone is affecting without being too cloying. Now if the producers (Forest Oden and Cahill) would just change that title from "Acts" to something with some marquee clout, and if they would enliven those deadly, tableaux-like song numbers (particularly in the first act), this might be the first show born and nurtured in Woodland Hills to go somewhere.

Where and When What: "Acts." Location: Pierce College Theater, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. Hours: Closes with four performances this weekend: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Price: $18. Call: (818) 883-6443.

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