An off-Broadway musical based on the relationship between the disciple Peter and his Lord, Jesus, is bringing audiences to their feet from Orlando, Fla., to Tulsa, Okla., and throughout the Southeast.
This first-time dramatic collaboration between a former television host and a central Florida minister of music is venturing beyond church walls and taking the gospel message to secular audiences amid thunderous applause and testimonies of changed lives.
Told from Peter's perspective, The Rock and the Rabbi, a contemporary treatment of the classic biblical story, is a cross between a concert and musical theater. The play begins and ends with Peter's miraculous catches of fish, and follows his relationship with Jesus through Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.
Though its message is strictly biblical, the show defies traditional religious labels. "People expect hymns and a costumed drama with period sets," said Gary Richardson, the show's writer-producer and narrator, "but what they get is minimalist storytelling and hip, 'island-style' music that's heavy on percussion."
The idea for the play emerged in 1974 when Richardson learned of Peter's two miraculous catches of fish: one at the beginning of Jesus' ministry and one at the end. Then in 1997, after discussing the idea with Danny Hamilton, minister of music at Harborside Christian Center in Safety Harbor, Fla., Richardson believed he had the makings for a good production.
Richardson had produced numerous vaudeville-style shows to existing music tracks, and Hamilton, the show's composer-music director, had many sacred titles in print. But neither had created a theatrical presentation from scratch.
With the show written, the pair heard Neal Coomer, a former member of the Christian music group East to West, sing at a Tennessee church. Despite numerous hit songs, Coomer was searching professionally, feeling a call to minister outside the church but unsure how to pursue it.
When he took a look at the book and score of the show, Coomer liked what he saw: a strong theater piece with a Christian context, meant to be performed in secular venues. He had found a way to realize his passion, and the pair had their Peter.
After a series of short engagements including the Lamb's Theatre in New York City and Hard Rock Live at Universal Studios in Orlando, the production eventually found a permanent home at the Plaza Theatre in Orlando. Coomer would commute weekly from New York City, and the other actors, musicians and support staff would commute locally.
The show caught the attention of Larry Peyton of Tulsa-based Celebrity Attractions, a theatrical promotion company that has placed shows such as Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera in a variety of Southeastern venues.
The Rock and the Rabbi opened in Tulsa in July and is scheduled to travel to states such as New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri this year, with David Wise now playing the role of Simon Peter.
"The message is so positive," said Derrick Williams, a Tampa, Fla.-based musician who sings the role of the Rabbi. "It's not manipulative. It challenges your intellect. Even if you don't choose to believe it, you'll still be entertained."
"People generally leave with a euphoric feeling of hope and joy," Hamilton said. "They see the truth of this message of forgiveness, hope and love. The show makes it real."
Amado J. Bobadilla in Orlando, Fla.