‘Samson’ brings message of grace to BransonBy: Matthew D. Henderson Branson MO
After a one-year run at its original, Pennsylvania location, Sight & Sound Theatres premiered “Samson” in Branson last month. The Bible character with superhuman strength is depicted in a two-hour musical, with 44 actors and 34 live animals, on a 22,000-square-foot stage that wraps around the audience.
Known for creative special effects and elaborate 30-foot-tall sets, Sight & Sound has been producing Broadway-caliber, faith-based plays in Lancaster, PA, since 1987 and in Branson since 2008.
“Our goal is to immerse people in the story,” said CEO Matt Neff at the premier. “People get sucked into the story; transported back in time. We find that’s when people’s hearts open up.”
The story of Samson originates in just four chapters of The Book of Judges, Neff said, so to produce a full-length, musical production required Sight & Sound to fill in some missing plot points, dialog and characters.
“We’re doing a creative portal of a true story,” he said. “It’s not going to be a verbatim, literal retelling. We are taking some creative license. … But it’s not something we take lightly, because we’re working with sacred scripture.”
Sight & Sound spent three and a half years developing Samson’s script, sets, costumes, and score, Neff said. Research included consulting multiple commentaries, translations and pastors.
“It’s a constant tug of war of: How do we make this relevant for today without ever compromising the message?” he said.
In the past, shows have featured other Old Testament characters such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, Jonah, Ruth and Moses, as well as multiple tellings of the story of Jesus Christ.
FAMILY FRIENDLY ENTERTAINMENT
The struggle to make a family-friendly production was more difficult with Samson, Neff said. The main character displays a disobedient and vengeful attitude, with unrestrained anger and spontaneous acts of violence. He is also involved in the theft, arson, prostitution and the killing of a thousand men in battle.
But the decision to feature Samson on stage was partially due to his inclusion in Hebrews Chapter 11, often called the “Hall of Faith,” Neff said. This chapter mentions Abraham, Moses, David and other iconic Bible heroes, including flawed characters like Samson.
“It’s a pretty dark story,” he said. “It has a lot of adult elements. There is a lot of war.”
Instead of removing troubling content from the script, Neff said, Sight & Sound staff try to present Scripture in a way that is palatable to the widest audience possible. In this version of Samson, sexual activities are vaguely implied but never presented on stage. The violence, while quite intense, is bloodless. Additionally, Neff said, stressful scenes are keep short, with comedic relief injected as often as possible.
“There’s a little bit of whimsy, a little bit of humor that we infuse in how we tell this story,” he said. “That helps soften some of the graphic nature of it without watering down the impact. That is hard to do, but that’s what the creative team excels at.”
The stage production follows the Bible’s version closely, until late in the last act. After a life plagued by rebellion, Samson hits rock bottom. It is at this point, Sight & Sound’s depiction pivots to offer the audience a broader message and helps relate Samson’s struggles to all mankind. Catholics will likely appreciate how Sight & Sound treats all Bible characters as a part of salvation history. Just as each Mass connects the Old Testament to the New Testament, whenever Sight & Sound features an Old Testament tale, it always relates the ancient characters to Jesus.
“What is clear to us is, all Scripture points to Christ. He is preeminent in all things as Paul says in Colossians,” Neff said. “You see that sometimes more obviously in some stories of the Old Testament; others it’s more subtle.”
The connection between Jesus and Samson is hinted, in the stage production, by a special focus on The Angel of the Lord, who announced the surprise conception of Samson to his parents. This role was expanded and used offer an additional message of God’s grace.
TEACHING THROUGH STORYTELLING
“Our goal,” said Cynthia Carson, Vice President of Operations in Branson, “is that [the audience] may hear and be touched by what we have to share.”
The difference between this musical and its Broadway counterparts, is startlingly clear at the finale. After delivering a concise Christian message, Sight & Sound does not end a show with a curtain call. Instead of queuing the audience applaud the cast, someone simply walks out on stage, thanks the crowd for coming and offers them the opportunity to meet with a staff member in prayer.
“It’s amazing how we see lives come to Christ altogether,” Carson said of the after-show fellowship that involves cast members, crew and lobby workers. “I’ve had the opportunity to lead people to the Lord – many of our folks have.”
All staff members are trained in proper evangelization techniques, she said. Attendees who opt for the prayer time are offered a free Bible, she added, and they are encouraged to attend a church in their hometowns.
“We’ve seen some of the most hard-chiseled guys, just balling like babies at the end,” Neff said. “I love that. That’s the power of story, connect through hard hearts.”
But the model of teaching through storytelling is not new, Neff said, “That’s what Jesus did: parables, parables, parables.”
The responsibility of acting in a play that can touch people’s lives and lead them to salvation is not lost on Joel Ashur, one of two actors who take turns playing Samson in Branson.
“Faith is everything,” he said. “Without this, what’s the point of acting, of doing these shows? We do this to shed light on God’s grace for humanity; God’s love for humanity.”
Samson is shown live 10 times per week, Tuesday through Saturday, until mid-October 2019. The Branson theater holds 2,100 and tickets run $49 for adults and $23 for children age three to 12.