Church, with a Broadway twist
NEW CANAAN — Hearing the word “super-cali-fragilistic-expi-alidocious” and having someone portray Mary Poppins by the pulpit at church isn’t exactly a frequent sight.
That’s what happened last Sunday at First Presbyterian Church.
Allison Gray, a professional actress and singer who has been involved with the church for 14 years, performed the role of Mary Poppins last Sunday.
“This was a fun way to engage with people,” Gray said. “It turned out wonderful, and I think everybody was really pleased.”
The performance is part of a series, “The Beatitudes of Broadway,” sermons based on several famous musicals, carried out by the new interim pastor at First Presbyterian, the Rev. Michael Piazza.
The Broadway-themed series is an effort aimed at bringing a lively and theatrical change to a church that, like others locally and around the nation, has seen falling numbers in membership.
“For this church and most mainline churches, about 75 percent of them have declining membership,” Piazza said. “For this church, the decline had been fairly significant in the last few years, so we are anxious about it.”
Originally from Savannah, Ga., Piazza grew up in the church and has dedicated himself to service since he was 18. Aside from being the interim reverend, Piazza teaches at the Hartford Seminary and is a consultant whose aim is to help address the problem of decline in churchgoing members.
The Beatitudes series is something Piazza came up with while a pastor at the Virginia-Highland Church in Atlanta for six years.
“It really did draw new people to the church,” Piazza said. “The last Sunday of that August there were 206 members, and we ran out of communion bread.”
David Plunkett is one of the consultants who has worked with Piazza for the last 16 years, and handles the multimedia and technology side of the equation.
“I help Piazza find an image that helps go with the scene he wants to illustrate,” Plunkett said. “This past Sunday, the event definitely generated excitement. People usually don’t hold back when they tell us about what they think.”
Two months into his new role, Piazza already has plans to refocus the church’s mission — not as a “change,” but as a way of getting the church members to reclaim who they are.
“Back in the 1960s, members from this church went to Selma and marched for civil rights. This was also the first church in town to welcome LGBTQ people and now to have an openly gay minister,” Piazza said. “They are distinct in that way and we’re helping them reclaim that and refine that for 2018.”
The next series of performances at First Presbyterian will include “Hello, Dolly!,” “Les Miserables” and “Hamilton” on Sundays.
“We’re doing this deliberately during the summer because attendance is really low, as people are away,” Piazza said. “I thought it was a great time to do something fun before we get serious about church again.”