NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It packed out Mennonite churches across south central Kansas in January 2008, with audiences begging for “just one more performance.” So now Bethel College is cooperating with Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA to take The Upside-Down King national.
To the national MC USA convention, that is, which is June 30-July 5 in Columbus, Ohio. The Upside-Down King is scheduled for a July 3 performance as part of the joint adult-youth worship at Columbus, which typically draws the largest crowd of the week, 6,000 or more.
The Upside-Down King is “a rock-and-roots musical in the tradition of Godspell and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” says Doug Krehbiel, Newton, who wrote the music with his wife, Jude. Its subject is “the life and ministry of Jesus, as seen through the eyes of the disciples who walked with him.”
The Krehbiels, who perform and record as Road Less Travelled, had been writing songs with the idea of “someday doing a musical” for more than 20 years.
When Donald Kraybill’s classic book on Christian discipleship, The Upside-Down Kingdom, came out in 1978, the Krehbiels were so taken with it, they wrote a song called “The Kingdom that’s Upside Down,” which they later recorded. The song was the seed for what one day became the musical.
About three years ago, Krehbiel connected with Carol Duerksen, a freelance writer and book publisher from the Goessel area, to write the script. An all-volunteer cast and band – most of them, including Krehbiel, alumni of Bethel College – put the musical together and scheduled it for six performances in churches in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas. Because of overwhelmingly positive response, they scheduled a seventh at Hesston Mennonite Church.
The Upside-Down King played to more than 1,500 people, raising more than $10,000 for youth ministry in Western District and South Central Conferences (Krehbiel is part-time youth minister for WDC and SCC in addition to being youth pastor at Tabor Mennonite Church in rural Newton). Audiences asked for more. But the players and musicians needed to get on with the rest of their lives and regretfully had to say No.
Then Krehbiel began talking with people in the music and theater departments and Church Relations staff at Bethel College about the possibility of producing the musical on campus. For a number of reasons, that proved unworkable. However, when discussion began about Bethel’s presence at the MC USA convention in Columbus, someone asked, “Could this musical work?”
The answer to that question, once there was a partnership developed between Western District and the college, was Yes. Professor of Music William Eash came on as musical director and producer and John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts, as stage director. Eash developed a budget and McCabe-Juhnke held auditions for the parts of Jesus and the Followers. They also secured the services of Annette Thornton, assistant professor and director of musical theater at Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, as movement coach and choreographer.
Two original cast members, Bethel graduates Bethany Amstutz and Bridget Kratzer, will reprise their roles as Followers, with Bethel students Clinton Harris, junior from Manhattan, Joshua Powell, junior from Basehor, and Kelly Reed, senior from Edinburg, Texas, as the other Followers. Austin McCabe-Juhnke, senior from North Newton, will play Jesus.
The original band is back in its entirety: Doug Krehbiel on guitars and banjo; Jude Krehbiel on bass guitar and penny whistle; Ted Krehbiel on drums; and Jason Peters on keyboard. Ted Krehbiel and Peters are Bethel alumni as well, while Jude Krehbiel worked at the college in the 1980s.
Before cast and band hit the road for Columbus, they will give three local performances of The Upside-Down King, all in Krehbiel Auditorium in the Fine Arts Center on the Bethel College campus: Friday, June 26, and Sunday, June 28, at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee on the 28th at 2 p.m.
There is no admission charge and no reserved seats, but freewill offerings will be taken to help defray expenses for sending The Upside-Down King to Columbus.
“All ages will enjoy the toe-tapping music,” says Dorothy Nickel Friesen, Western District Conference minister. “This is a great family event – young and old will be moved by the Gospel message in a new format.”
“Those who see the show will understand the compelling message of the Gospel,” says John McCabe-Juhnke, “and also the quality of Bethel College students and alumni.”
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.