What: "Walking on Water: A Journey in Musical Theater and Song."
When: Today-June 16.
Where: Cumberland County Playhouse, 221 Tennessee Ave., Crossville, Tenn.
A young man plucked out of a seminary biology class who became the Cumberland County Playhouse's first star is returning to the Crossville, Tenn., theater today for the world premiere of his new autobiographical show.
Bob Gunton, who created the role of Johnny Timberlake in the first playhouse hit, "Tennessee, USA," in 1965, went on to earn two Tony Award nominations and became memorable to many as Warden Norton in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption."
He will star in "Walking on Water: A Journey in Musical Theater and Song." The show, which begins CCP's golden-anniversary series of events, runs through June 16.
Not only does it sketch Gunton's life, from guitar-playing, high-school folk singer to "Tennessee, USA" to Vietnam to Broadway and Hollywood and back, but it includes memorable songs he has sung, songs relevant to the time and songs that have moved him.
Among the shows he's starred in, at CCP or Broadway, are "South Pacific," "Carousel," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Evita," "A Little Night Music," "Man of La Mancha," "Oklahoma," "Working," "Big River" and "Sweeney Todd."
Jim Crabtree, the theater's managing producer whose then-seminary friendship with Gunton led to his role in "Tennessee, USA," said his longtime friend created the dialogue in "Walking on Water" and selected and compiled the music.
The title, he said, refers to the account of Jesus walking on water in the Gospels but is metaphorically a common experience for many people concerning their craft and their relationships.
Gunton, 66, said the story of "Walking on Water" unfolded around the idea of a concert, but he began to consider the context of what had happened and what was happening in his life.
"I saw the beginning of the arc of the story," he said. "I began to appreciate that I'd had a pretty dramatic life. I began to tell a story that really told itself."
Told chronologically, it also includes flashbacks to a younger Gunton (portrayed by Austin Price) and a woman (Margaret French) who plays ingenue roles in Gunton's life. As the play progresses, they also portray different roles in his story.
At one point, said Crabtree, who produced and staged the show, there is "a fun competition between the two men for the woman's attention."
"It's been humbling, exciting, redemptive and fun," said Gunton.
Playhouse musical director Ron Murphy directs a stage band of 10 to back the production.