click here for home pagemusic

The life worth living

The musical "Canticle of the Plains" resonates with the spirit of its author, the late Christian singer Rich Mullins.

If you go
What: Canticle of the Plains

When: 7 p.m. today and Thursday; 1 p.m. Friday

Where: Mary Jane Teall Theater, Century II

How much: Tickets are $10 and $12 in advance; $12 and $15 at the door. For information, call 686-3091.

By Chris Shull
The Wichita Eagle

The musical "Canticle of the Plains" is, on its surface, an updated retelling of the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

 But its message of piety and poverty, of striving for the eternal by renouncing everyday affairs, also mirrors the beliefs of the playwright, Rich Mullins, a popular contemporary Christian singer who made his home in Wichita and was killed in a car accident in Illinois on Sept. 19, 1997.

 Mullins' death came just days before the premiere performance of "Canticle of the Plains" at Friends University. That performance went ahead despite the mixed emotions of the cast and the catastrophic loss felt by Mullins' family, friends and fans.

 Now, Nicole Brocksieck, director of the original production, is reviving "Canticle of the Plains" for Legacyfest, a festival of Christian arts and music being held today through Saturday in Wichita.

 "I think it is time, after this two years of healing for a lot of his fans, to revive it," Brocksieck says. Brocksieck is artistic director of the Prime Rib Dinner Theatre in Old Town and co-founder, with her husband, Kevin, of Tapestry, an arts production and consulting company that works with churches to integrate fine arts into worship services and youth programs.

 She was intimately involved in getting "Canticle of the Plains" onto the stage in 1997. She helped edit Mullins' original script and she directed the first production.

 The musical is set in post-Civil War Kansas; Brocksieck says Wichita and the surrounding prairie was an inspiration for Mullins' retelling of the life of St. Francis. Here, a man named Frank renounces his family and worldly possessions and wanders the plains, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and promoting a reverence for all living things.

 On his travels, he meets cowboys and American Indians and ex-slaves, characters who either validate or dismiss his faith and hope in God. 

The latest revival of "Canticle of the Plains" at Mary Jane Teall Theater has attracted the attention of artists across the United States.

 Joining a cast of distinguished local actors and eight dancers is Kimberly Guerrero playing Rhoda. Guerrero was featured as Jerry Seinfeld's American Indian girlfriend in an episode of "Seinfeld" and was the artist's model for Pocahontas in the Walt Disney animated feature.

 Brocksieck approached the project with the same devotion she did when she first read Mullins' script 2 1/2 years ago.

 "I have been directing now for about 12 years, and this show has affected me more than anything," Brocksieck says. "Not just because of the religious aspect of it, but it is probably the most creative, the most emotional, the most spiritual project I've worked on." 

Her collaboration with Mullins began innocently enough. She and Mullins were introduced professionally by Jim Smith, the chaplain at Friends University, where Mullins attended college and where Brocksieck occasionally works on shows. 

"Rich gave us this script in this dirty old brown paper bag," Brocksieck remembers. "If we had done the full script, it would have probably lasted 4 1/2 hours.

 "It is something that was really close to Rich's heart. He had been working on it for like 15 years. But it really needed a lot of trimming for the stage." 

The trimming of Mullins' poetic dialogue was difficult for Brocksieck, who came to admire his intricate, elegant style.

 "Rich is on a different plane, I think, than the rest of us; a lot of his poetry totally went over my head," Brocksieck says. "There is lot of very beautiful poetry in this. It is almost like a modern Shakespeare. You really have to read through things." 

In addition to spoken dialogue, Mullins provided words, music and background accompaniment, much of it on cassette tapes that arrived in the paper bag with the original script. (Christian singer Mitch McVicker co-wrote much of the material with Mullins.)

 Though Brocksieck was loath to change Mullins' music, a mixture of light rock, folk and other contemporary styles familiar to Christian music fans, she did suggest the addition of dancing to accompany the songs.

 "When I first told Rich I wanted to use dancers, he looked at me and kind of like, 'I don't think so!,' " Brocksieck recalls, laughing. "But I eventually sold him on the idea.

 "The dancing is a cross between liturgical dance and ballet, street and pop. It has a very MTV effect to it. I think it really enhances the songs." 

Mullins' spirit lingers in every note and word of the musical, his presence somehow enhanced by the very tragedy that kept him from seeing his life's message brought to life on the stage. 

"When I first met him to talk about this script, we met one afternoon and we sat and I told him my ideas and he told me what he'd like to see," Brocksieck says. "As I was walking out with my husband, I said, you know, I have this very weird feeling that he is never going to get back here to see this show.

 "I talked with him a couple times on the phone after that, but we never met in person again." 

Chris Shull writes about music and fine arts.