Change of heart: Miraculous musical biography

Stir one surrey in Missouri with one rooftop fiddler. Add whiskered adults in tights and trash heaps to bad taste.

My concept of musicals used to focus solely on the caricatured ingredients; overexposure to AMC and Andrew Lloyd Webber left my enthusiasm for the genre as flat as Timmy Longo's hairdo. Unfortunately, at an early age, I quit paying attention, even to the small-time Sondheims of the world.

Until recently.

It never struck me that this genre could be an engaging medium for unusual biographical narratives. But after hearing about Live Arts' production of Floyd Collins (based on the true story of a spelunker's last days in a Kentucky cave) earlier this season, I realized there was more out there than the same old song and dance.

And then I noticed a flyer for Francis of Assisi, an original musical at St. Paul's Memorial Church. The prospect of saintly brethren snapping their fingers in unison thrilled me.

That didn't happen, but I did learn a lot.

Born in 1181 to the Bernadones, a wealthy Italian merchant family, Francis grew up in a house of privilege, one that encouraged his capricious whims and merry ways. At age 20, the gallant Francis left Assisi to fight the neighboring Perugians. Captured, he spent more than a year dungeon-bound, weakened by fever. Contemplations of his own mortality led to a renewed faith in the teachings of the Gospels.

Upon his release and return, much to the horror of his father, Francis renounced his wealth and embraced asceticism. Over the following years, the controversy regarding his extreme turnaround morphed into awe; soon Francis had a small group of followers, whom he named the Friars Minor. The brotherhood and unquestionable love they advocated caught the attention of a young heiress, known today as St. Clare; after befriending Francis, she started her own order of pious women. Francis succumbed in 1226 to health problems resulting from fasting, two years after reportedly being blessed with the wounds of Christ atop the rocks of La Verna.

Although the musical was without any contextual spoken narration, the story was easy to follow (supplemental biographical information was included in the program). Each song recognized moments that illustrated Francis' metamorphosis, humility, and compassion.

Written by Philip Clark, founder and former director of the Blue Ridge Chamber Orchestra, and Morgan Simone Daleo, a UVA faculty member who once danced with the NYC and Bolshoi ballet companies, Francis of Assisi struck me as a production excelling in both planning and execution. Steve Mendenhall (Francis) and Christina Goyne (Clare) each has great experience with music-based productions, and it showed in performance. Goyne's voice, in particular, is exquisite; it's no surprise she's swept regional competitions.

Stalactites to stigmata! I can only wonder what the next musical will bring.