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“!Hero The Rock Opera” begins with the word “imagine.”

At the end, the word is “awesome.”

The opera asks you to “Imagine a world still waiting for the Messiah.” Imagine that Jesus was born just 30 years ago in Bethlehem, Pa., and is conducting his ministry to the lost in New York City.

“!Hero” is actually more of a brand than a show. There’s a Web site, CD, graphic novel and novel — with two more books to come. Each also is accessible to Americans in Europe, the Mideast and the Pacific.

But the project’s centerpiece is the opera, which has been touring the States for the past month.

I had planned to pass on the show, suspecting it would be one of those “well-intentioned” productions that don’t quite hit the mark. However, my daughter was drawn by some of her favorite Christian singers: Mark Stuart of Audio Adrenaline as Petrov, or Peter; Rebecca St. James as Maggie, or Mary Magdalene; and Michael Tait as Hero.

Although the opera started a bit slowly, exceptionally strong performances by Tait, St. James and Stuart in the middle of the first act kicked the show into high gear. From that point, the music and action grabbed the audience and didn’t let go until the end. The production used a combination of rock, pop, hip-hop, modern dance and video images to convey all the right messages and moods.

In between was an emotional roller-coaster ride. Rapper T-Bone gripped the audience with his machine-gun delivery of lyrics about death on the streets in “Raised In Harlem.” Tait was memorable as he conducted the Last Supper. Paul Wright, as Agent Hunter, the show’s narrator, escalated the tension with “Murder On Their Minds.” And Michael Quinlan of Orange For Astronauts enthralled with his creepy “Shadowman” after he — as Jude — betrayed Hero.

Some have compared the project to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But unlike the 30-year-old rock opera, this production leaves no doubt about Hero’s mission, methods or resurrection.

Crowd reaction has been so positive that the tour will very likely be revived in the spring, says Robert Michaels of Lord & Michaels Entertainment, part of the “!Hero” team headed by creator Eddie DeGarmo, who is also president of EMI Christian Music Publishing.

Of course, those whose access is limited to the books and CDs might wonder whether this energy extends to the other products.

• CDs. This two-disc set includes all of the music from the opera. And, just like any other soundtrack, most of the songs are dependent on context and will leave listeners feeling a little lost without it. For most people, that’s a major drawback. If you do pick up the CD, get the graphic novel, too, so you can be familiar with the plot.

Despite that, a few songs are worth checking out, including T-Bone’s “Raised In Harlem” and Wright’s “Murder On Their Minds.” I love the way Tait’s voice calls out to the lost in “I Am.” And I can see the inspirational resurrection song “He’s Not Here” being performed on many Easters to come.

However, some of the songs lose their impact on the recording. I was blown away by “Shadowman” live but wasn’t too impressed with the CD version.

• Graphic novel. This work follows the opera pretty closely, weaving in a few extra details and changing a few items. It will be of most interest to those curious about the project’s premise.

• “City of Dreams.” This is the first of three “!Hero” novels that will be written by Stephen and Ross Lawhead. Stephen, the father, is best known for his Pendragon Cycle and Song of Albion series.

“City of Dreams” is a great read, packed with action, intrigue and interesting characters. In it, Agent Hunter’s role is expanded from narrator to protagonist. He’s assigned by the International Council of Nations — or ICON — to check out a band of religious zealots. He gets sidetracked by the death of a prophet known of “Washer John.”

Next to the opera, this is my favorite element of the “!Hero” project. I can’t wait for the second and third novels.

• “City of Dreams” audio book. Brad Lavelle, the reader, does an excellent job of conveying the tone of the novel.

• On the Web. The project’s site — www.herouniverse.com — is pretty standard. It offers the typical information, downloads and product sales.

— Today’s Praise is a roundup of news and reviews from the contemporary Christian music industry. It appears every other week on the Religion page.

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