SUGARCREEK, Ohio, September 3, 2016 – Every summer, tourists flock to the various Amish Country enclaves in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere to glimpse the picturesque surface of a moral and religious way of life that seems light-years removed from the crassness and corruption of America 2016. Arts, crafts, hand-built furniture, pristine farms that are off the electric grid, and plain-clad folks who get around only in distinctive, horse-drawn buggies are all part of what draw tourists to marvel at an essentially 19th century lifestyle that’s still alive and (mostly) thriving in these areas.
Typically, most Americans have encountered the Amish only in sleazy, condescending cable TV “reality shows” that allow elitists and fellow travelers a welcome opportunity to sneer at what they regard as part of the out-of-touch underclass. But in recent years, a surprisingly professional Amish and religious theater phenomenon has sprung up in rural, Amish jurisdictions like Sugarcreek, Ohio, where one production—“Josiah for President” is in its final weeks, soon to be joined in repertory on September 13 by a newly mounted production of “Mennonite Girls Can Cook.”
We joined friends this summer in nearby Wooster, Ohio, to attend an Ohio Light Opera production of Cole Porter’s sprightly “Kiss Me Kate,” a hit 1948 musical (and later film) based on William Shakespeare’s comedy, “The Taming of the Shrew.” We’d also hoped to book seats for the company’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” but found ourselves closed out of that one due to heavy ticket sales.
As if by chance (but maybe not), one of our friends discovered a musical that was being performed not far from Wooster in a venue we’d never heard of: The Ohio Star Theater, part of the family-friendly Carlisle Inn complex located on a country crossroads in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country. Entitled “Josiah for President,” this newish, Broadway-inspired musical by Martha Bolton was adapted from her novel of the same name, which charted the improbable journey of an upright Amish farmer from the farmhouse to the White House, with plenty of music along the way.
The current production’s director, Wally Nelson, wrote the musical numbers for the show, which is produced by Mel Riegsecker and Dan Posthuma via Blue Gate Musicals of Nashville, Tennessee, an organization that “specializes in faith-based Christian musicals,” according to several sources.
We picked up our tickets after figuring out that the current Ohio Star Theater was actually a ballroom or large meeting room within the Carlisle Inn that had been cleverly transformed into a black box style theater-in-the-round. Seating was limited, but each seat had a decent view of the proceedings, and the quality of the sound and the room’s acoustics were actually quite good for this essentially improv space.
The orchestra sounded good, too, except for the fact that there was no orchestra. The show’s orchestral music was pre-recorded, canned and played back during the production, although the live soloists in the drama were obviously well-rehearsed, blending seamlessly with the phantom instrumentalists and never missing an entrance or a beat.
Since the singers and the music remained remarkably in-synch in spite of the soundtrack, were were able to focus our attention on the story line and on the actor-singers where it belonged. The following promo video offers a sampling from the show.
It should be noted at this point that despite apparent physical drawbacks, the Ohio Star Theater’s productions have been successful enough that the Carlisle Inn complex, which also includes shops and a restaurant, is currently building out a spacious theater building elsewhere on the property’s campus. It’s currently scheduled to open in March, 2017.
As for the current show itself, for this cynical critic—who grew up in Ohio but has spent most of his life dwelling among the corrupt-o-crats infesting the Washington, D.C. metro area—“Josiah’s” plotline was a bit on the hokey side and almost unrealistically idealistic, similar to one of those heart-rending yet heartwarming films that Hallmark successfully churns out by the dozens. But there’s also a considerable upside to this production, which we’ll get to in just a bit.
“Josiah’s” story begins as an earnest, former Congressman named Mark Stedman gives up on his presidential campaign and on his Washington career, fed up with all the rottenness and corruption most of us have been fed up with for at least a quarter century. Depressed, Stedman returns home to his rural congressional district to ponder his future, not to mention the meaning of life.
When Stedman’s car gets stuck in a ditch near home, he’s given a hand by a somewhat taciturn but friendly Amish farmer and jack-of-all-trades named Josiah Stoltzfus. As Josiah warms up to Stedman, he offers words of wisdom and explains his attitude toward life in the process of extracting the car.
After his experience with Josiah, Stedman is hit with a stunning epiphany: what’s wrong with America today is that it’s run by thieves and crooks, not by upright, stalwart, principled, religious family men like Josiah. In Stedman’s opinion, Josiah is a man who would offer straight talk and simple solutions to all America’s problems while standing up for traditional morality—once commonplace but lost long ago in official Washington. Better yet, a great many Americans, fed up with the status quo, might readily get behind a simple, plainspoken candidate who wasn’t afraid to work hard every day to pull America out of the ditch.
Deciding Josiah is the ideal candidate offering national moral and political salvation to a troubled country, Stedman tries to convince him to run for President. Of course, Josiah and his wife are both opposed to the notion for predictable moral and religious reasons. But in the end, Josiah is persuaded that perhaps he could do some good for his increasingly lost country and its angry and bewildered citizens, and he decides to run after all.
After a series of almost predictable but genuinely funny debates, Josiah is improbably elected to the White House to the amazement of the Washington political professionals who’d routinely ridiculed his chances—uncannily reflecting, for better or worse, the current, relentlessly negative press coverage accorded one of our real-life 2016 presidential candidates.
Even after he occupies the Oval Office, Josiah’s refreshing presidential style is surprisingly effective. In a short time, he’s beloved by a public that had long despaired of having an admirable and upstanding individual leading the country from the White House. Tragedy strikes, however, transforming this warmhearted yet at times surprisingly realistic musical comedy on its ear. We’ll say no more, so no spoiler alert is necessary.
“Josiah’s” dialogue is generally witty and surprisingly up-to-date from a political standpoint, although some of the comedy is sitcom-predictable. Likewise the upbeat musical numbers and the snappy patter of the lyrics are equally clever, although you’re not likely to be singing them in the shower tomorrow morning.
The casts—we employ the plural here, as other casts are performing this musical concurrently at other Amish country venues in Pennsylvania and Indiana—are regional professionals who know how to sing and act as well as how to inhabit their characters.
Best of all, the religious message of this production was slipped through with the lightest of touches. Practicing Christians in attendance will find “Josiah’s” moral tone encouraging and uplifting. But so, too, may those who are prone to ridicule the folks that 2008 candidate Barack Obama characterized as “bitter clingers” holding tightly “to their guns and their religion.” A just and moral man as President? What a concept.
And herein lies the biggest surprise of this show, as we count down the final 60 days or so of this election year. Though America’s hyper-partisan media refuses to acknowledge the fact, the candidacies of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were and are a wake-up call to politicians and coastal elites that the natives are restless. A wave of revulsion toward both dominant political parties in this country is slowly building to tsunami force. If November’s winner is unwilling or unable to address a disgruntled public’s serious concerns, things may spiral rapidly beyond control.
That’s where “Josiah” unexpectedly enters the fray. This pleasant and generally uplifting little musical succeeds not perhaps as Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Instead, almost surreptitiously, the show causes anyone with an open mind to think: This play isn’t just entertainment. We could actually use someone like Josiah in the White House right now—someone without ambitions for wealth, fame and glory. Someone who would right the Ship of State, inspiring us all after our long journey through the desert by offering us a new national path built on strong moral clarity and firmness of purpose.
So why don’t we have a real Josiah running for president this fall?
It’s a sobering question, one that’s accorded a hypothetical but provocative answer in “Josiah for President,” which is essentially an old-fashioned morality play that effectively but winningly addresses our amoral times but with the lightest of touches… at least until that surprise finale.
“Josiah for President” can be treacly at times, and old Washington hands might find it more than a tad unrealistic. But its message and the moral dilemma it explores will haunt many who see this show long after the final curtain falls, leaving them with some perplexing, unanswered questions: Why does the average American keep voting for politicians he or she knows are firmly committed to sending us and our families straight to moral and fiscal hell? Why is a real Josiah not currently out on the campaign trail? Why won’t exemplary individuals run for office in this country?
The vexing questions prompted by this deeper-than-you-think-it-is show offer something serious to ponder, both now and as we head to the polls this November—something we must all confront before it’s too late.
Quality of production: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars out of four stars)
Impact and timeliness of message: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
Location, tickets, information: “Josiah for President,” now through November 8, 2016 at the Ohio Star Theater, currently located in the Carlisle Inn, 1357 Old Ohio Route 39, Sugarcreek, OH 44681.
Ticket prices: Adult, age 13 and up: $37.00; Children 6-12: $19.00; Toddlers: 0-5: Free if not requiring a separate seat.
For Tickets: Call 855-344-7547.
Upcoming show: “Mennonite Girls Can Cook” opens at the Ohio Star Theater on September 13 and runs through Nov. 4, 2016 in rep with “Josiah for President.” PR note: “Watch the excitement, confusion, and just plain frantic fun when a small town cable cooking show hosted by two Mennonite women attracts the attention of a Hollywood producer.”