St. Paul's dramatic life Loose adaptation: Two high school seniors have created a 'gripping and powerful' musical -- not the usual church fare.

February 24, 1996|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

If blinding light, heavenly voices and a beheading aren't enough to attract attention to a church musical, consider its creators: a couple of 18-year-old high school students.

Simon Kendall and Thomas Saunders, seniors at Towson High, said they were put off by the heavy Old Testament material available in a book of religious plays. So they decided to write their own show for their church youth group's annual production.

The result is "Redemption," a two-act musical based loosely upon the life of St. Paul, taking the stage tonight and March 3 at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore.

It has solo and ensemble numbers that range from impassioned to burlesque, and -- in the view of the youth group adviser, the Rev. Michael L. Stone -- enough violence to warrant a PG rating.

A church flier about the performance advises: "This story is gripping and powerful, not light and funny as most of our previous productions have been. It may not be appropriate at all for the smallest children, and older children may need some preparation beforehand to understand the events of Paul's life."

In an interview during a rehearsal Monday evening, Mr. Kendall and Mr. Saunders said it was the action in the story that drew them to it.

"I hadn't read the Bible that much in my life before," said Mr. Saunders, who described himself as nonreligious. "It was interesting, but in most of the stories, there wasn't enough going on to stage."

"A lot of religious plays are fundamentalist, and I really just can't stand them," added Mr. Kendall, who said he is religious.

"When we started, this was our very first idea, and we came back to it," Mr. Saunders said. "There's so much to this story -- and we cut huge sections out."

He wrote the dialogue and lyrics and Mr. Kendall wrote the music, with help from his mother, pianist Ruth Kendall.

In flashbacks and musical numbers, "Redemption" uses the book of Acts to tell how Saul of Tarsus persecuted the early Christians -- until he was blinded by a light on the road to Damascus and addressed by Jesus. Saul regained his sight and became Paul, spreading the new religion through the ancient world.

Mr. Kendall has a powerful singing voice as St. Paul, who on the eve of his death recounts his life to Vespus, a fictional Roman soldier played by Mr. Saunders. As Paul is beheaded, Vespus is converted: the redemption of the title.

In addition to lights, voices and the beheading, "Redemption" has mobs stoning St. Stephen, the killing of a mother and her children, an earthquake opening a huge cell door -- even a chase, with a jump from the city walls into the water a la "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." ("If the fall didn't kill them, they'll surely drown," sings the mob.)

A comedy number, "The Good Old Days," features Paul Spraycar, 16, and Matt Kendall, 15, as Atticus and Cornelius -- former henchmen in Saul's persecution of the Christians.

With period tunics over jeans and big tennis shoes, the two sing, dance and do pratfalls while lamenting a change from guilt-free torture to a new I-feel-your-pain approach.

"It's a hoot," Mr. Stone said of the number.

The actual fate of Paul is unknown, although legend says the saint was beheaded, said Mr. Stone, associate to the rector.

Mr. Saunders began work on the play last spring -- amid his other tasks, including being editor in chief of the Towson High paper ZTC and as the student member of the Baltimore County Board of Education. He lives in Stoneleigh and has been accepted early to Harvard University.

Mr. Kendall put the words to music, writing in his head and using a computer. He plays piano, guitar and trumpet, and has had leading roles in several musicals.

The two met at Dumbarton Middle School, and Mr. Saunders came with his friend to the Redeemer Youth Group about two years ago. The Kendalls joined the church after they moved to Rodgers Forge from Durban, South Africa, in 1985.

All four of the Kendall children -- Simon, Matthew, Sarah and Peter -- are in the production; their father, architect Mark Kendall, runs the lighting, while Mrs. Kendall plays the piano.

Mrs. Kendall said collaborating with a teen-age son wasn't difficult, although "you always clash when you're doing something creative." They divided the work -- Mrs. Kendall taking the more intimate solos while Simon wrote more of the group numbers. "Then we'd critique each other, working with Tom," she said.

Mr. Kendall and Mr. Saunders both enjoy musicals and saw a favorite, "Jesus Christ Superstar" just last week. But neither foresees a career in theater.

Mr. Saunders said it's just a hobby. Mr. Kendall seemed less certain. "If I could do something in the theater, I would -- but that's not realistic. You have to have something more stable."

The first performance of "Redemption" is at 7:30 tonight at the church on Charles Street at Melrose Avenue. The second show is at noon March 3. No admission will be charged -- but baskets for donations will be at the door.

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