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Solid as a ‘Rock’ 

Celebrity Attractions’ ‘The Rock and the Rabbi’ is a biblical story set to contemporary music.

ROCK 'N' RABBI: At Robinson.
  • ROCK 'N' RABBI: At Robinson.

When theater-goers hear that “The Rock and the Rabbi” is a musical based on the Bible — the story of Jesus, the rabbi, as seen through the eyes of the disciple Simon Peter, “the Rock” — they probably think of the popular shows “Godspell” or “Jesus Chris Superstar” from the 1970s.

Danny Hamilton, who composed the music and lyrics for the show, understands. Gary Richardson, from whose idea Hamilton wrote the music, was especially influenced by “Godspell,” the 51-year-old Hamilton said, “and I listened to ‘Jesus Chris Superstar.’ I loved it.”

But “JC Superstar” is “a little more eclectic than we are, we’re more ‘Godspell’ in style. We’re in between the two, really. The difference is the storytelling.”

Richardson, the storyteller, portrays Simon Peter. Hamilton is also with the tour as the band leader and guitarist. They’re both venturing out with their cast for a four-week tour of the region starting with Little Rock’s Robinson Center Music Hall on Monday, Sept. 11, for five shows through Thursday (including a matinee on Thursday). All seats are $22 and groups of 10 or more can get $11 tickets.

“There are several people who sing, and the character Peter is telling the story in first person,” Hamilton said. “We stuck to the scriptural base of the story, and he’s telling the story as it reads in the Scripture. There are not added storylines or additional drama put into the story.”

But while the story follows the New Testament verses, it’s not meant solely as a religious experience.

“We’ve had good responses everywhere, even New York,” Hamilton said. “We’ve had people who share the same faith see it, but it’s not just that. People tell us they see it as a very powerful story.

“You always have the Christ figure in many good dramas, and it provides background for a good story. Our intention was to tell the story and how the audience heard it and reacted to it was up to them.”

Larry and Kay Payton, who own Celebrity Attractions, the booking company that brings Broadway shows to Little Rock, Tulsa, and other similar-sized cities in the region, took on the show as executive producers two years ago. The show made strong showings in Tulsa and Dallas last year. The current four-week tour starting here will be the longest the show has been on the road, said Hamilton, who is a music director at a church in Safety Harbor, Fla. Recently, it has had short runs in New York and along the East Coast, as well as in the Ryman Theater in Nashville, Tenn. “It didn’t really go west until Larry came along,” Hamilton said.

Richardson had an idea for a concept musical he’d been carrying around a while, Hamilton recalled of the show’s genesis. “I had written songs and done events for churches, but never a musical like this,” Hamilton said. The pair retreated to the mountains in Maryland, came up with a story outline, and Hamilton then started the songwriting while Richardson devised the narrative.

A good response in Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fla., led to a reprise, then there was clamoring in Tampa for a performance and it grew from there. It established a regular home in Orlando in 2002, then found its way on the road.

“A reviewer in Dallas said it really well: it’s country at its roots but ethnic in its accents,” Hamilton said. The songs are all acoustic, with a wide range of instruments, including a bagpiper and an accordion player, and a lot of energy led by three percussionists.

“Because it’s acoustic and guitar driven, it has a country roots or folky feel, but it has the energy from the percussion that gives it some driving things that would classify it as a rock musical,” Hamilton said. “Everything is done live .. there is no prerecorded music or midi stuff, and no electric instruments.”

Hamilton, born in Poplar Bluff, Mo., grew up in the St. Louis area. He traveled with a Southern gospel group out of Lexington, Ky., for more than two years — “That’s how I met my wife, so that was the best thing about that,” he said — and got a master’s degree in choral conducting. “Most of those influences show up in the show,” he said.

After some time in Indiana, where his two children were born, Hamilton and his family in 1984 moved permanently to Florida, where he’s worked in churches.

He says he’s been too stubborn to give up his part in the show the past eight years, but Hamilton said if the tours start lengthening out as the show’s popularity grows, he might have to turn over his role to a younger person.

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