Kevin Blakeslee starred as Joseph in a scene from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Broadway hit Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, performed by the St. Bernard Players.
PHOTO BY ANDY MANIS
CHAD GROTE played
Jesus to a full house in
the St. Bernard Players’
2006 production of
Jesus Christ Superstar.
When he’s not portraying
Jesus, Chad is a house painter who
loves to play softball on his days off.
Caiaphas was a local doctor, Judas
was an animal researcher and the audience
The idea of a parish theater group
had germinated years earlier in the
mind of Msgr. Michael Hippee, pastor
of St. Bernard Parish in Madison, Wisconsin. “We had a gym with a stage
that wasn’t being used,” says the priest
known as Father Mike. “It seemed [a
theater group was] the thing to do to be
good stewards of our space. I really
thought it was going to be just another
It may have started out that way. But
over the years, this project has evolved
into a high-quality community theater.
It reaches out to the parish, the
neighborhood and, in fact, the entire
city as cast, crew and audience come
together to take part in and enjoy productions
as ambitious as Annie and
Jesus Christ Superstar.
Some of the people who made this
idea a reality include director/actor
Mickey Reynolds and producer/actress
Tara Reynolds. Mickey and Tara had
been living in New York, studying their
craft, auditioning for roles, waiting on
tables, doing all the things that young
When they decided to get married,
they moved back to the Midwest, where
they wanted to raise a family. It was during
their premarital conversations with Father Mike in early 1999 that the priest
first mentioned the idea of a dinner
Although the couple agreed it would
be fun, “We had bigger things on our
mind,” says Mickey. “So it kind of got
put on the back burner.”
The wedding went on as planned at
St. Bernard, a lovely old Catholic
church located on the east side of Madison,
a bustling university town and
capital of the state.
Later that summer, Ken Sosinski, the
parish’s director of music and liturgy,
contacted the newlyweds about a fund-raiser
he had in mind to buy new chairs
for the choir. Mickey and Tara jumped
at the chance to direct and produce a
small dinner-theater-style music program
for the parish.
With a cast of about 30 parishioners,
many of them kids and teenagers, that
first production was Tales of Wonder,
Marty Haugen’s musical retelling of
Old Testament stories. An additional
20 or so parishioners volunteered their
time backstage, in the kitchen and in
The Players (as they often call themselves)
followed that performance with
a holiday musical revue based on The
Chosen One Montage, a medley of Christmas
For the next several years, the St.
Bernard Players managed to put on two
productions a year. They bounced
among variety shows, smaller plays
and musicals. These included The Song
of Mark by Marty Haugen and The
Rented Christmas by Norman C. Ahern,
Jr., and Yvonne Ahern.
Madison prides itself on the diversity
of its theatrical offerings, from small independent and experimental venues
to long-established community, academic
and professional groups to
national traveling productions.
Within this setting, the St. Bernard
Players believe they offer something
different: a dinner-theater experience
suitable for the entire family, with values
and a work ethic anchored in the
A dinner-theater format was selected “to make it more social,” explains
Father Mike. Bringing his parish
together for a meal and Christian hospitality
is what helps to make parish life
a shared experience.
With over a thousand families and
individual members, Father Mike calls
the diverse parish “a melting pot of
ages and professions.” The original purpose
of the dinner theater, he explains,
was to provide an alternative outlet for
members of the parish who hadn’t yet
found their niche, in terms of participation.
And it worked, especially for
the young people of the parish.
“We had this whole group of kids
come together, forming community
and having a lot of fun doing it, seeing
Church as outside of the walls of the
building,” he says. “Instead of hanging
out on the streets during The Song of
Mark [rehearsals], they were hanging
out at St. Bernard.”
Proceeds Help Parish
Even though the parish was blessed
with a stage, it was a pretty small stage
in an older gymnasium that was not
designed to promote the kind of
acoustics needed to put on a quality
musical production. During the initial
year, the parish put a lot of work into
renovating the gym to make it more
conducive to the types of performances
the Players hoped to do in the future.
Much to their delight, that first performance—and every subsequent performance
since—has been a sellout.
The cost of tickets has been kept reasonable—usually in the $8 to $18 range—for dinner and performance.
The Players have managed to come
out ahead financially on all of their
productions. These proceeds have gone
back into capital improvements, such
as a new stage floor, and sound and
lighting improvements. Profits have
been used to purchase padded chairs,
round tables for family-style seating
The holiday season of 2003 was a
breakout year with the ambitious production
of It’s a Wonderful Life. From
then on, there was no stopping the
young theater group as it went on to
perform such notable plays as Annie,
Miracle on 34th Street, The Music Man and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Earlier this year, 36 adults and 20
children formed the cast for Andrew
Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Joseph
and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
An additional 80 volunteers made up
the support crew.
While the original purpose of the St.
Bernard Players may have been outreach
to parishioners, this project also
reaches out to the entire community.
“It brings non-Catholics onto our
campus for a theater that’s well done,”
observes Father Mike. “They might not
worship with us but they certainly share
in the fellowship we have.”
Ken Sosinski echoes those sentiments: “It’s part of our message of welcome
and hospitality. It opens our
doors to people who might otherwise
not come to St. Bernard. Whether they
come from different faith traditions or
no faith tradition at all, it gives them an
opportunity to experience our parish
community. And I think that benefits
the parish as well.”
Scott Muller, 23, is an animal
researcher with the University of Wisconsin.
He fed his love of theater when
a friend talked him into trying out for
the Players’ production of The Music Man because “they needed men in the
Scott admits he was nervous at first
about joining a Catholic theater group.
Although his family heritage is Jewish,
he follows no particular religious belief.
To his delight, Scott was immediately
accepted into the St. Bernard Players.
His religious background has never
been an issue.
“I love working with the St. Bernard
Players because of their attitude and
the camaraderie,” he says. “People in St.
Bernard Players are less worried about
personalities. They concentrate on having
fun and providing a good performance.”
When the Players’ casting call went
out for Jesus Christ Superstar, Scott tried
out for and won his dream role: Judas
Iscariot. Mickey Reynolds says the role
of Judas is musically as important as, if
not more than, the role of Jesus in this
Keith Meyer didn’t let the fact that he
was not a parishioner affect his decision
to join the St. Bernard Players either. A
physician and a medical professor at
the University of Wisconsin, Keith has
enjoyed roles as diverse as Daddy
Warbucks in Annie and Caiaphas in
Jesus Christ Superstar.
In the beginning, recruiting for talent,
stage crew and kitchen crew was done
primarily through the parish bulletin
and word of mouth. More recently,
Tara and Mickey Reynolds posted casting
calls on the Players’ Web site and
spread the word through their contacts
among the Madison theater community.
Finding people to appear onstage
hasn’t generally been a problem. In
fact, for Annie, they had the sad job of
turning away promising young actresses
for the first time. “We didn’t like doing
that,” says Tara. “It was very hard, especially
with little girls....But you can’t put
40 little girls in Annie. There’s no room
on the stage and no room in the dressing
Regarding the crews, Mickey says, “You’re just kind of at the mercy of
volunteers.” But it turns out volunteers
at this parish, even for the often underappreciated
roles of stage and kitchen
crews, are not all that hard to obtain.
Tara explains her simple solution: “We offer the family members of the
people in the cast [first chance to volunteer]
in the kitchen. They eat for
free and they see the show for free.”
Not only does this method fill the
crew roster, but Tara and Mickey have also discovered that it gives whole families
an opportunity to participate in
something that benefits the parish.
Family involvement is especially important
to this couple, whose own young
daughters have been on their parish’s
Parishioner Mary Perez landed the
role of Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life. A
professional actress with stage and TV
credits, she says she joined St. Bernard
Players because it allowed her to share
a rare theatrical experience with her
young daughter. It also provided an
opportunity to be involved in a community
theater group with ties to the
Experience Not Needed
One of the oldest continuing cast members
is septuagenarian Rose Rebholtz.
With 18 grandchildren, she needs little
publicity to draw an enthusiastic audience.
“My favorite was The Music Man,”
Rose reminisces. “I didn’t see how they
were going to pull it off and was
amazed to see how they did it.”
What is the appeal that keeps someone
of a certain age who’d never been
onstage before coming back? “Well, I
played a few of my scenes well enough
to make people laugh,” recalls Rose.
But it’s more than just applause and
audience reaction that motivates her.
Being in a community theater “put
me in touch with people I wouldn’t
ordinarily have met. Getting to know
teenagers turned out to be a fun experience.”
Georgia Strebe is one of the teens
Rose got to know. While Georgia has
enjoyed all the productions she’s been
in, she admits that the Christmas plays
are her favorites. “It’s a Wonderful Life is
just such a good story,” she says. “All of
the people, all of the actors and the production
crew were so fun to work with.
There was a real sense of community.”
In a college essay about the most
important activity she has been involved
in during her high school years,
Georgia wrote about the experience of
auditioning, rehearsing and performing
with the St. Bernard Players.
Georgia’s parents, two sisters (Lydia
and Amelia) and younger brother
(James) have all had either onstage or
backstage roles during various productions:
James has been a Player since he
was four. Georgia says her family really
treasures this shared experience.
“It’s a blast,” echoes her father, Galen
Strebe. “It is a great way to spend quality
time with my children.”
Galen was a bit of a latecomer to the
group. It wasn’t until after he and his
wife, Shannon, saw their three daughters
having so much fun in one of the
earlier productions that they decided to
sign up for the stage crew. Eventually,
he auditioned onstage as well, landing
roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and The
Galen probably did not have to
worry too much about the outcome of
the auditions. Georgia says, “You don’t
really need to have experience to get
into the plays. Mickey and Tara are
looking more for commitment than
And that’s probably one of the
strengths of the Players, according to
Georgia. “There’s a real sense of commitment
on the part of the actors and crew. The rehearsals are better organized
and more productive” than other theater
groups with which she’s worked,
she says. The result is that “the actors
are better prepared for the performances.”
Even Father Mike gets involved. He’s
typically found in the kitchen, where he
plans and helps prepare the dinners.
“He’s a fabulous chef!” raves Tara.
But Father Mike doesn’t limit his
involvement to the kitchen. While he
doesn’t consider himself to be a thespian,
he does enjoy the walk-on roles
he’s assigned in each production. And
so do his parishioners, who applaud
and roar when he makes his brief
What was Father Mike’s favorite
parish production? “Probably Jesus
Christ Superstar,” he says with a smile.
In addition to liking the story itself,
he says that “the acting was absolutely
phenomenal. The set was extraordinary.
We had a stage that was constructed
so that the crucifixion was
right in the middle of the audience.”
This production was staged during
the week following Easter. “I had comments
from our youngest to our oldest
[parishioners] about what a moving
experience it was,” says Father Mike.
“Several people told me that Holy Week
will never be the same. That’s a powerful
commentary on the play.”
Father Mike considers how these
parish productions differ from those
at community theaters. “I would hope
that the Christian hospitality would
be evident among those who choose to
act in the plays as well as those who
choose to attend the theater and enjoy
the food,” he reflects. “I think the
patrons come because it’s good theater,
a good meal and a nice evening. But I
would hope that we who work the theater
would be able to provide a really
Christian kind of an environment, of
Growth of Faith Community
Ken Sosinski is introspective about the
growth of the St. Bernard Players as a
faith community. “I think we started
small just because you can’t start out
with a production the size of an Annie,”
he says. “You build up to that.
“It’s like anything that grows,” he
continues. “You don’t know where it’s
going to go. We have to rely on the
Holy Spirit to guide us. We have to be
open to where that growth is going...to
rely on and pray on what God is working
through each one of us. Soli Deo
gloria, to God’s glory alone. We’re a faith
community; you can’t micromanage
Additional information about the St.
Bernard Players can be found at
www.madstage.com/Companies/stbernard.html. St. Bernard Parish is
located at 2450 Atwood Avenue,
Madison, WI 53704; phone: 608-249-
9256; Web site: www.stbernards.net.
Peggy and Mark Williams each have been published
previously, but this is the first shared venture for the
married couple from Madison, Wisconsin.