Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Service Asks Blessings on Broadway Season, Celebrates 50th Anniversary of 'The Fantasticks'

James Barbour, left, following the service.
Broadway performers and theater lovers came together Monday night for the 14th annual Broadway Blessing service held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.

Broadway actors James Barbour, Charles West and Anthony Newfield were among those performing during the interfaith service which also celebrated the 50th anniversary of The Fantasticks. Tom Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics for the show, and who directed and has starred in the acclaimed revival playing Off-Broadway at the Snapple Theater Center, attended the service (the show was one of our picks to see this summer.)

Officiating were the Rev. Canon Thomas Miller, canon for liturgy and the arts at St. John, the Right Rev. Andrew St. John, rector of the Church of the Transfiguration, and Rabbi Jill Hausman of The Actors' Temple, who also performed "A Simple Song" from Leonard Bernstein's Mass.

Actress Catherine Russell gave a reading, Project Dance, recipient of the 2009 "The Lights Are Bright on Broadway" award presented by Masterwork Productions, performed to "His Eye is on the Sparrow." The Broadway Blessing Choir and Bruce Neswick, cathedral organist, offered a number of tunes including medleys from The Fantasticks. West, who has appeared in the 50th anniversary production of the show, sang "Try to Remember."
Newfield performed a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Barbour, accompanied by Jeremy Roberts, sang "The Measure of a Man" from Frank Wildhorn's musical Rudolf. In addition, composer Carol Hall performed a song she had written, inspired in part by speaker Lynn Redgrave's stirring message form last year's Broadway Blessing and to whom this year's service was dedicated.
The evening is produced under the direction of religion and theater writer Retta Blaney (center, above). Her blog, "Life Upon the Sacred Stage," can be found here.
-- Lauren Yarger

Participants mingle at a post-service reception.

Christian Actor Part 2

Chuck Neighbor continues with thoughts about being a Christian actor on his blog Backstage Blog. Access it here.

Erica Lane Featured in Movie Soundtrack

"A Christmas Snow," the Trost Moving Pictures (winner of Best Feature Film at XP Media International Film Festival) starring Muse Watson, Catherine Mary Stewart and Anthony Tyler Quinn, has released its soundtrack featuring Chris Kirkpatrick, Martha Munizzi, Kelly Morrison, Jason Eustice, Casii Stephan, Erica Lane and Alicia Larson. Find out more about the movie here.

The CD release is Oct. 8, but you can here it now at iTunes. Listen to samples, buy the album, or individual songs by clicking here.

Erica will be touring in Nairobi this fall. For bookinig information, visit

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meet Tessa Afshar, Author of 'Pearl in the Sand'

God Went to Ancient Jericho to Grant the Desires of This Writer’s Heart
By Lauren Yarger
A walk across Florence’s famous Ponte Vecchio with little shops built into its stone walls sparked more than thoughts of the bridge’s more than 700-year-old history. For Tessa Afshar, it brought to mind the story of Rahab, a prostitute mentioned in the bible, who lived in the wall of Jericho.

“What would it be like to live in a wall?” wondered the leader of women’s and prayer ministries at a church in New England. Suddenly, she realized that she and a lot of others already knew.

“Most of us have to contend with walls in the interior places of our souls. Walls built on foundations of pride, fear, rejection, loss; walls that keep others at bay and shield us from drawing close enough to get hurt again,” Tessa said. “Suddenly, I was hooked. I wanted to write about walls, about living in them, about pulling them down. I wanted to write about Rahab.”

The thoughts morphed into “Pearl in the Sand,” (Moody Publishers, 2010) already in its second printing after its release just a few days ago on Sept. 1.

The novel follows Rahab from age 15 when she is sold into prostitution by her father, through the fall of the wall of Jericho and the subsequent settlement of Rahab and her family among the Israelites. There, she marries Salmone, an Israeli soldier and leader, but while the wall of Jericho might have fallen, the fortification of hurt, shame and betrayal that Rahab has built around herself for protection and survival stands tall and impenetrable.

The story plays out against the dry, hot, scented land of Israel, a location not totally unfamiliar to Tessa, who lived in her native Tehran during the last decade of the Shah of Iran’s reign. Her parents were what she terms “nominal” Muslims, trying to be good citizens, but not adhering to the basic tenets of Islam. Her grandmother, however, was a devout Shiite, and it was from her that Tessa learned what she knew about the religion.

When she was almost 14, her parents divorced and she and her sister went to live with their mother in England where Tessa attended boarding school. There, instead of attending mandatory weekly church services, she and the other “foreign” girls were directed to another location where they were supposed to read their own holy books. Since the Koran is best interpreted when read in the original Arabic, which Tessa didn’t read, she spent time instead immersed in her favorite literature – romance novels. She still is a big fan of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen and other 19th-century authors.

The self proclaimed “voracious reader” hoped to become a romance novel writer some day. She craved the unconditional love found in the formula of those books. College brought her to the United States where she studied English, biology and health administration before eventually heading to Yale to get a Masters in Divinity degree.

During a difficult period during her 20s, she had a dream (a method God apparently uses to make himself known to many Muslims) where she stood at the sea of Galilee and recognized Jesus (despite never having read the bible). She was touched by his love and power and knew him to be the son of God. When he asked her to follow him she agreed, though it took years of growth and study before she could do so fully.

Though she had lived in western culture for years, she never heard the Gospel until she was 26, when within months of the dream, friends started to share with her. She was led to the verses in 1 Corinthians 13 about love. They were a revelation to her about the nature of God’s love for her and began a process that led her through intellectual and cultural strongholds to a changed heart.

Now a respected ministry leader and sought-after speaker (hearing her heartfelt prayers is a moving experience that brings you closer to God), Tessa has added some other writers to her favorites list, like Francine Rivers, C.S. Lewis and George McDowell. With her flowing, wavy brown hair, the petite beauty looks like she could be cast as the heroine of one of the romance novels she so loved.

Rahab, however, is a product of much research. Bound by biblical truth, historical data and what archaeological evidence is available (mostly from Egypt), Tessa created Rahab’s world and the story of a woman whose “life was a mess” but who found that it was salvageable with God’s love.

“A lot of it is modern ideas of rejection and worth,” she said. She explored what a woman who has been rejected, or whose past mistakes haunt her would do to protect herself to survive. What were her strengths and gifts, Tessa wondered? Rahab might have lived thousands of years ago, but women still grapple with these issues today, and the character and her story began to take shape.

The first part of the book, detailing Rahab’s years of prostitution, was not easy to write, Tessa said, not only because of the difficult subject matter, but because she wanted to get into the meat of Rahab's relationship with her husband. Ultimately, it’s the story of two people trying to figure out how to love each other while loving God and leaving the past behind. It gets the reader to a place of self examination with truths that are ageless.
The story also is a celebration of redemption: this woman, who had been a prostitute, finds favor with God, and goes on to give birth to a son who figures in the genealogy of Christ himself (Matthew 1:5).

When the book was finished, Tessa sent it to three agents, then struggled with self doubt for three months while she waited to hear whether anyone was interested in the manuscript. She attended a writer’s conference and met with one of those agents who signed her on the spot. Publishers were interested and Moody Publishers eventually got the nod. Their belief in the book has been “incredibly encouraging,” Tessa said.

Their belief wasn’t misplaced, it seems, given the need for a second press run.

Next up is a second biblical novel set during the time of Nehemiah in the court of Artaxerxes, the son of Esther’s husband. Tessa’s dream of being a writer has come true.

“The most amazing thing is how much God cared about my heart,” she said of the experience. “He’s willing to go to extraordinary lengths to give us the desires of our hearts.”
Click here for a review of the book. Click here to download two chapters, view the trailer and to find out more about Tessa.

Book Review: 'Pearl in the Sand' by Tessa Afshar

Biblical Story of Finding Worth After Rejection Just as Relevant Today
By Lauren Yarger
Picture a woman who is betrayed by people she trusted, whose whole world falls apart and who builds emotional walls around herself to survive and avoid feeling the pain. Is this the author of a New York Times bestseller or a guest on the latest Oprah? Not exactly.

This woman is Rahab – the prostitute mentioned a few times in the bible – so skillfully brought to life by first-time novelist Tessa Afshar in “Pearl in the Sand” (Moody Publishers, 2010), that the story which takes place during and after the fall of the wall of Jericho transcends time and breathes life into a character full of the same fears, heartbreaks and joys we experience today.

The first reference to Rahab, in the Old Testament book of Joshua, tells how she hides Israelite spies in her house built into the wall of Jericho, brought down by Israel. Later we learn that she and her family, all spared during the siege because of Rahab’s actions, settle permanently in Israel. She’s referenced in other books, but no further clues about her destiny appear again in Scripture until we read in the Gospel of Matthew that she was married to a man named Salmon and had a son named Boaz.

Afshar has merged these few details with historical, biblical and archaeological information to create a sweeping tale of a woman’s life and the complex relationship between her and Salmone (the author chooses an alternate, less “fishy” spelling for the name of her novel’s hero). Just how does a prostitute from Jericho end up married to an important leader of Israel and the mother of Boaz, who was in Jesus’ genealogy? The answers and the details laying their foundation make for excellent historical fiction, wrongly classified by some as romance.

The story involves some romance, of course, but the relationship between Rahab and Salmone hardly follows the formula of a handsome hero rushing in on a white horse to save a beautiful damsel in distress. Rahab has spent her whole life taking care of herself and doesn’t exactly relish the thought of men coming into her life after having been sold into prostitution by her father as a means of providing food for the family. Society and religion brand her worthless and ruined. Salmone agrees, at least at first, until he's rebuked by Joshua.

"Pride is the bane of the righteous," the leader of Israel tells his soldier friend. "On the outside you may seem more upright than a woman with such a past, but God sees us from the inside."

Joshua places Rahab and her family under Salmone's care and he starts to get to know the woman hiding behind a wall of hurt and emotion.

The two marry, but the honeymoon never really begins as the couple can’t figure out how to chip through the bricks of pain and insecurity that Rahab has erected, fortified by Salmone’s judgment. Metaphorically, the fate of Jericho’s and Rahab’s walls are the same when God razes years of history and purges the past. It isn’t until the dust clears that Rahab can see herself as a treasure, just like the pearl in the earrings given to her by her husband – a gem formed by years of protective layers protecting an initial hurt.

“Pearl” is a moving book. These are richly penned characters whom we get to know slowly and very well, much like we get to know people -- by journeying alongside each other through good times and bad. Discovering the depth of Salmone’s feelings speaks to Afshar’s skill in not depending solely on the point of view of the female protagonist.

The novel remains with us because of its relevance in modern times. Rahab’s are lessons we’re still learning today.

“I was really disappointed with God,” yesterday, Rahab reflects, when he fails to answer her prayer request. “Why wouldn’t the Lord answer my cry?”

She later comes to realize, however, that by not answering her prayer, God was able to enact a plan much bigger than the one she envisioned and one which offered an immediate solution to her being ostracized by the women of the village while bringing her faith to the attention of the man who would become her husband.

The story also remains with us because we’ll never read again about the battle of Jericho without remembering there were people on the other side of that wall, or trudge through those long lists of “begats” without realizing that all of those names were real people with real stories just like ours.

Rahab struggles with her father's betrayal, with her self worth, with trying to separate past sexual encounters from the marriage bed and with forgiving herself. At one point she wonders whether she’ll ever be remembered for anything besides her profession. Today we know her as a direct ancestor of the Messiah. That God can use any one of us, despite our pasts and mistakes, just like he did Rahab, isn't a bad lesson to learn in 2010 either.

Likely to be a contender for a 2011 Christy Award, "Pearl" is an oasis in the sometimes rather barren desert of Christian fiction. Readers must agree since the book, just released days ago, already is in its second printing.

For a feature on Tessa Afshar, click here. You can purchase “Pearl in the Sand” here.

Download the first two chapters of the book and view the book trailer at

Notes: An electronic advanced reading copy of the book was provided by Moody Publishers. I am honored to call Tessa a personal friend.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

James Barbour Among Those Asking 2010 Broadway Blessing

James Barbour (right), Carol Hall, Anthony Newfield, Catherine Russell, Charles West, The Broadway Blessing Choir, Project Dance and other distinguished guests will be among the performing artists taking part in the 14th annual Broadway Blessing, 7 pm Monday, Sept. 13 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC.

The interfaith service of song, dance and story has been bringing the theatre community together every September since 1997 to ask God’s blessing on the new season.

This year’s event is dedicated to Lynn Redgrave (1943 – 2010) who delivered a moving theatre reflection at last year’s Blessing, talking about her faith, her career and her battle with breast cancer, and offering a joyous recitation of Psalm 23. This year, the audience will sing that Psalm in her honor.

The evening will celebrate the 50th anniversary of two American classics: The Fantasticks and To Kill A Mockingbird.

The Fantasticks, which opened Off Broadway in 1960, has become the longest-running production in the history of the American stage and one of the most frequently produced musicals in the world. Charles West, a member of the cast, will sing “Try To Remember.” West has appeared on Broadway in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Show Boat and Cyrano The Musical.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, published in 1960, remains as relevant today as it did a half century ago. Broadway Blessing welcomes actor Anthony Newfield, who recently played the role of Atticus Finch at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts in California. Newfield’s recent Broadway credits include The Royal Family and Waiting for Godot.

The Broadway Blessing Choir under the direction of Bruce Neswick, director, cathedral music, will perform a number of hits from Broadway musicals from 1960, in keeping with the 50th anniversary theme, followed by an audience “sing-a-long”. The Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean and The Rev. Thomas Miller, canon for liturgy & art from the Cathedral will be joined by Rabbi Jill Hausman of The Actors' Temple and The Right Rev. Andrew St. John, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration (The Little Church Around the Corner), as officiants in the 75-minute program.

Founded and produced by theater and religion writer Retta Blaney, Broadway Blessing was conceived as a service of song, dance and story to seek God's grace on the new theatre season. Past participants have included Marian Seldes, Frances Sternhagen, Boyd Gaines, Edward Herrmann, Anna Manahan, KT Sullivan, Mary-Mitchell Campbell, J. Mark McVey, Tituss Burgess, Kathleen Chalfant, Billy Porter, Elizabeth Swados, Ken Prymus, Three Mo’ Tenors and Broadway Inspirational Voices.

Broadway Blessing is free; reservations are not needed. For more information visit

Broadway Blessing is made possible by the generous support of the Church of the Transfiguration (Little Church Around the Corner) and many wonderful friends. he cathedral is located at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, at 112ths Street.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Book Note: 'Listen' by Rene Gutteridge

Up front and personal: Rene is a partner on an upcoming book project. When I requested her book for review from the publisher, it was before we were connected. She was a popular author and her latest, "Listen" (Tyndale 2010), sounded pretty interesting, even to me, a really big "non fan" of "Christian" fiction, so I thought, "Why not."

I'm glad I stepped out of my reading comfort zone and am happy to provide some notes, rather than a review. This is a fun book (Rene's got a great sense of humor and one scene in particular, caused me to guffaw, something usually reserved for when I'm enjoying the latest Bill Bryson book). It's also not what I would typically think of when I think "Christian" fiction. There are some faith themes running throughout the story, but they aren't the focus. Instead, there's a really intriguing plot, well developed characters whom we care about and one of the best grab-you-and-make-you-want-to-turn-the-pages prologues I ever have read in any book of any kind,

The premise involves the effects on folks in a small town when their private conversations suddenly go public on a mysterious website. Imagine that you're in your home or some other private setting, talking about a neighbor or about the girls at school, or whether or not you think your boss is competent. Then that conversation is reprinted word for word (expect for any curse words you might have included) on a web site, almost as though an invisible transcriber were present in the room.

Needless to say, it unnerves everyone, and even leads to murder. Who's behind the website and what is his or her motive? Those are the questions that drive the story; the answers make it a fun and thought-provoking novel. Appropriately, discussion questions are included at the end of the book for use in a small group study.

You can purchase "Listen" here. Visit Rene's web site and learn more about her other works at
-- Lauren Yarger

Daily Inspiration

The Blind Side

Read about the real life mom from "The Blind Side."



Read Matt Mungle's review of the movie at

Lauren Yarger, Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

In 2008 she was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater with a Christian perspective for Reflections in the Light ( and is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection. She also is a contributing editor for

She also reviews books for Publisher's Weekly and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She formerly was Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp, a national theater web site bsed in New York and a reviewer for American Theater Web.

She also served as Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. and worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

She is a freelance writer and member of the Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and The CT Critics Circle.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger lives with her husband in West Granby, CT and has two adult children.

Copyright Notice

All contents copyright © Lauren Yarger 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. All rights reserved. For reprint permission, contact

Scripture from THE MESSAGE Copyright 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

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