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Senior’s Bonnie and Clyde musical opens this week

Robbers, murders, gangsters.

These qualities make Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow an unlikely cast for a student’s first musical composition.

While senior Chris Rayis recognizes their evildoings, he is more intrigued by the beauty of hope in humans; the power of redemption.

Rayis, a composition major at Belmont, will premiere his first composed musical, “Just South of Gihon,” in the Black Box Theater Feb. 2-5.

The fictional musical centers around the historical characters, Bonnie and Clyde, two Great Depression criminals known for robbing and shooting those that stood in their way.

Rayis has enjoyed his studies in classical composition, but has always been inspired by the honest expression found in musical theater.

“Regardless of the art, everyone is trying to tell a story, but in musical theater the performers just make it obvious,” he said.

Rayis began working on “Just South of Gihon” the summer after his freshman year at Belmont, but he knew he needed help. He formed a partnership with an old high school friend, Ami Shibasaki, who was earning her degree in playwriting at a school in New York. The two began collaborating the script and music for the show in summer 2009.

After multiple drafts and concepts, the production came together as a fictional musical with historical elements. Writing together was an unusual experience for the pair, as Rayis lived in Nashville while Shibasaki was in New York.

“We only met face-to-face twice over the whole experience. Almost all our writing happened over Skype and e-mail,” said Rayis, “Sometimes, I would write a song and ask her for dialogue to surround it. It was like putting together a puzzle.”

After the music and script were completed, Rayis looked to the musical theater department at Belmont to bring his tale to life.

“Picking the characters was easy. An audition is about trying to get to know and understand an actor fast, but I knew these actors as people,” he said.

His friends in the musical theater department were more than willing to help Rayis achieve his dream, and some have been working with him on the musical for years.

Rayis has also found much support from Mitch Mosarro and Jessika Malone, who both met with him twice a month to give him guidance and advice on how to run a musical. The two mentors also introduced Rayis to Kickstarter, a website which has already provided the production with promotion and financial support.

Several large themes arise from the musical, such as the fallen nature of all humans and that good and evil is not as black and white as it sometimes seems.

“The audience should understand that leaders with power and authority are just as fallen and sinful as anybody,” said Rayis. “This musical has caused me to write some of the darkest things I have ever written about.”

While they may be known for their cruelty and heartless crimes, Rayis believes Bonnie and Clyde offer a message about the beauty of hope in the redemption of a depraved and sinful world.

“In the musical, one character realizes the power of redemption, which changes everything,” said Rayis. “I especially want the audience to realize redemption through the cross of Christ is universal. I didn’t start this musical with a message, but when you spend so much time with a story like this, you must have a message to tell.”

While Rayis believes in the redemptive message “Just South of Gihon” expresses, he thinks Shibasaki would tell you the musical displays a different message.

“Our messages are equally powerful, but different. Everyone can have their own message; I want everyone to walk away with their own personal message from the musical,” he said.

Rayis will continue his Kickstarter account even after the show runs so that audience members and the community can continue to express their support for it.

-Kristin Hinkley

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