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Cotton Patch Gospel

a Drama w/ Comedy & Music
CATEGORY : COMEDY DRAMA MUSICAL
by Tom Key & Russell Treyz; Music & Lyrics by Harry Chapin

COMPANY : Theatrical Outfit [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Balzer Theatre @ Herren's [WEBSITE]
ID# 3446

SHOWING : August 12, 2009 - August 30, 2009

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

This gem of musical theater adapts Clarence Jordan's "Cotton Patch" versions of the gospels of Matthew and John for the stage, transplanting the story of Jesus into the mid-20th century American South and considering what might have happened had Jesus been born in Georgia. Directed by Tom Key and produced in association with Georgia Ensemble Theatre, where the production will run an additional 3 weeks (www.GET.org). Recommended for all ages.


CAST & CREW LIST
Musical Director Michael Fauss
Director Tom Key
Set Designer Jamie Bullins
Props Designer M. C. Park
Lighting Designer Mike Post
Costume Designer Sydney Roberts
Hair Designer J. Montgomery Schuth
Sound Designer Jon Summers
Fiddle & Ensemble Scott E. DePoy
Matthew & Others Daniel May
Ensemble Eric D. Moore
Guitar & Ensemble Buck Peacock
Bass & Ensemble Ryan Richardson
Banjo & Ensemble Rick Taylor
Ensemble Krystal L. Washington
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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The Most Repeated Story Ever Retold
by Dedalus
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
3.5
Is there a story more often retold than the Gospel of St. Matthew? From “Godspell” to “Corpus Christi,” writers have put Jesus’ life story into a context that speaks to “people like us,” retells the story in terms that make its religious underpinnings relevant to those previously thought excluded. Can it be long before we see an Atheist’s retelling of the story?

Indeed, there is a lot to like about the story, even for a cranky old heretic like me. What’s not to like about a story of redemption, of the underdog beating the “powers that be,” of the appeal for unconditional love and honesty? I often make the case that you don’t need to believe in magic to enjoy the Harry Potter books, so it makes sense that you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the Christ story.

The original “Cotton Patch Gospel” was written by Clarence Jordan in the late sixties as a retelling of the New Testament in terms of the American South and its endemic race relations. Jerusalem became Atlanta, Rome became Washington DC, and Jesus became a preacher travelling the by-ways of small-town Georgia. In 1988, current Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key made a stage play of the Matthew section, enlisting Harry Chapin to provide songs. Now, Mr. Key has restaged the piece, ceding the central narrator role to Daniel May.

As there is a lot to like about the story, there is a lot to like about this adaptation, this staging. Mr. May, as expected, attacks the role with the same love of story-telling that informed his performance in the “The Pillowman” (though with somewhat not-so-creepy stories). He role-plays with a wide roster of character voices and postures, and keeps the audience spellbound, even with such a familiar story.

And, the story itself fits its Georgia setting naturally and pleasantly. I especially liked how big-budget televangelists and Nashville-bound Gospel Bands become the “Pharisees” and the “Keep-my-hands-Clean” players of the Good Samaritan story. I liked how the innocents-butchering Herod becomes a Georgia governor in bed with the Klan, with the actual atrocities fitting nicely into the history of the Klan itself. And I liked how Harry Chapin’s songs were more bluegrass than gospel, more folkie ruminations than respectfully somber hymns. The feel of the play is more one of non-judgmental joy in song and brotherhood than on preaching and self-righteous pontification.

Which is not to say there aren’t rough spots for the non-believer. One of my least favorite parts of the story is Jesus’ denunciation of his family, his advice to leave those you love in the service of God – not to be picky, but what an egotistical, cheesehead thing to preach! Here, fortunately, this is not left unquestioned, as we then get a moving song from Mary and Joseph about the loss of their son.

Theatrically, I think the play is somewhat diminished by its story-teller monologue format. Scenes are “played out” for us, only with one side of the conversation missing. Since the “scenes” where the response is silence are alike dramatically to those where the response is not, it creates a bit of a stylistic disconnect that can be distracting.

In addition to Mr. May, Eric Moore and Krystal Washington provide ensemble support in various roles (though few of them actually interact in any meaningful way). Their roles are primarily musical, and both performers deliver the vocal goods. The band also occasionally fills in some characters, and show themselves adept and making their lines natural and character-specific. Kudos to Scott DePoy, Buck Peacock, Ryan Richardson, and Rick Taylor for being able to talk and play, often at the same time. They also had the “feel” of a real band who enjoyed playing together – hardly surprising considering this was not the first “CPG” production they’ve been part of.

So, just to wrap this up, I found this show a lot more enjoyable than “Tent Meeting” from earlier this year, though not quite as much as the “Godspell” Mr. Key put together a few years ago. It tells an oft-repeated tale with style and with joy, and showcases a dynamo performance from Daniel May and the ensemble. It preaches without being “preachy” and makes some intriguing leaps to connect the Jesus story with 20th-century Georgia.

And it reminds us non-believers that faith does not have to be judgmental, that the belief in the lessons trumps belief in the man, and that choices made “in the name of God” can have real consequences on these we should love.

And it has a whole churchbus-load of banjo-pickin’ and fiddle-playin’ bluegrass that you can’t help but tap your toes to. Now that’s something to believe in!

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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