Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

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May 31, 2012

'Walking on Water' a remarkable theatrical experience

CROSSVILLE — A world premier, right here in Crossville! A most unusual production awaits you on the Mainstage at the Cumberland County Playhouse. Walking on Water is the personal autobiography of the life of Bob Gunton. It is a creative retrospective of musical theater and film for the past fifty years. As the program states it is “a musical journey of faith and redemption,” reminding us “sometimes even faith sinks like Peter in Galilee.”  

Many moist eyes were seen on the opening night of Walking on Water. People reminisced, “I was on stage with Bob when Tennessee U.S.A opened.” One commented, “I have the program from that opening night in 1965.” Said another, “It is wonderful to have Bob back home.”

There were, in a sense, four audiences present. Those comments came from people who had lived in the area for nearly fifty years. They had celebrated the friendship and shared the creativity of Bob Gunton and Jim Crabtree. They loved learning the career that had spanned the intervening years. There were those of us who were drawn to this area in part because of the rich theatrical experiences Jim Crabtree was bringing to the Plateau. Some had traveled to see the man whose talents they had admired on stage and screen. One commented, “I loved Bob Gunton in The Shawshank Redemption, I cannot wait to see him in person.” The remainder of the audience was just there for a good evening of musical theater.

They all got what they wanted and more.

Bob Gunton is the focus of this three-person show. With the aid of complex video equipment, we meet Bob at various times in his life and career. Our first glimpse is of Bob entering from the aisle, playing his guitar, singing and dancing “Plinkety Plank.” He and Paul Crabtree had written the song together. Bob’s energy and skill erased those intervening fifty years.

We are told this story: Bob Gunton and Jim Crabtree as seminary roommates convinced that God had called them to the priesthood. Amid studies, questions arose: Were there choices? Paul Crabtree offered a choice. He was opening a new playhouse. Were these two seminarians being called to channel their energy and develop their skills as performers?  

Austin Price as “Actor” plays a young Bob Gunton. Images on the screen reveal some resemblance along with comparable energy and developing skills with the guitar. Price is Gunton, “a summer hillbilly” of 1965 in Tennessee USA. Price assumes the mature role of psychiatrist, a prophet and a host of other theatrical characters as Bob Gunton’s life unrolls before us.

Margaret French brings a wealth of experience to her debut on the Playhouse stage. As an “Actress,” she assumes the role of Barbara Swenson, “First Love,” Him’s wife, Agent Nina Carey and many other theatrical characters. French has sung in a Pop/Folk trio, as background vocalist and made her New York City debut as a soloist in Handel’s Messiah.

The voices of these three blend in an amazing array of 26 musical numbers.     

The demanding range of this music  moves from Galway Bay, Goodnight, Saigon by William M. Joel, a series of songs by Stephen Sondheim, Humoresque by Antonin Dvorak and Sidney Twinn, and Have Some Madeira, M’Dear by Michael Flanders and Donald Ibrahim Swann. The latter, we learn, was his audition piece for Paul Crabtree.

Talented actors depend on the supportive talents of an orchestra. Ron Murphy as conductor and keyboard artist with must change tempo, and song seamlessly as Gunton, Price and French sing a musical comedy medley. The on-stage orchestra never misses a beat. It is composed of Kathy Bowers, flute; Wayne Robbins, trumpet; Tony Greco, bass; Joe Brindisi, clarinet/sax; Greg Danner, horn; Drew Robbins, guitar; Leigh Sooter, cello; Robert Thatch, trombone; and Chet Hayes, percussion.

Gunton has played a huge variety of memorable roles over his fifty-year career. 

We see only snippets of his stage work. A longer portion of Sweeney Todd, for which he received a Tony Award, is part of this show. His films include farce and drama. He has been a series regular on many TV shows.

I will not bring you a list of the credits of this Broadway and Hollywood star. I only suggest you call for tickets. The show runs only through June 16. You will have a remarkable theatrical experience that is not to be forgotten.

Bob Gunton was presented a key to the City of Crossville. We look forward to his using it as he and Jim Crabtree maintain their close long-term friendship.

Thanks, Jim, for sharing your friend and your remarkable skills as a director.    

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