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Theatre Information

Virginia Rep Cotton Patch Gospel

By • Feb 13th, 2013 • Category: Reviews, Virginia
Cotton Patch Gospel
Virginia Rep: (Info) (Web)
Virginia Rep Center – Hanover Tavern, Hanover, VA
Through April 28th
2:00 with one intermission
$25-$42/$22 Rush/$12 Student
Reviewed February 10th, 2013

Cotton Patch Gospel is another entry in the Richmond Acts of Faith Festival. It is presented by Virginia Repertory Company at Hanover Tavern’s Barksdale Theater. Adapted from books by Clarence Jordan, this musical by Tom Key and Russell Treyz retells the Gospels of Matthew and John set in the mid-20th-century American South. The music and lyrics were written by Harry Chapin (who was the first celebrity I ever interviewed, but I’ll save that story for another time.) These were the final songs he wrote just before he died in a car accident in 1981.

Jordan was a farmer and New Testament Greek scholar. In 1942, he founded Koinonia Farm, an influential religious community in southwest Georgia that still exists today. Jordan was very involved in the civil rights movement and social justice. In an effort to translate both the words and context of the scripture, he wrote several popular “Cotton Patch” adaptations of the New Testament, resetting the lives and preaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul in contemporary rural Georgia. Virginia Rep is partnering with Habitat for Humanity to celebrate the writings of Clarence Jordan and his role in the founding of that organization.

The story of the theater itself is a fitting one for this play as well. In 1953, six young actors traveling south from NYC intent on finding a barn to put on shows (à la Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) found the Hanover Tavern. Originally called the Barksdale Theater, it is now a part of Virginia Rep. The rustic “barn-like” stage were a perfect setting for this show. Set designer Terrie Powers uses just a variety of stringed instruments (acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos and a giant bass guitar) and some milk crates to appropriately set the scene.

The play itself is kind of a cross between a bluegrass version of Godspell, and an episode of “The Smothers Brothers” or “Hee Haw.” Much of the show is laid back and informal, with cast members opening each act by strumming their instruments and joking with the audience.

Christopher Stewart plays the lead role as “Matthew,” but also portrays numerous other roles including the Narrator, John the “Baptizer” and Jesus. Musical Director Drew Perkins, Lucas Hall, Brian Sulsar, Eric Williams, and Corey Wells round out the cast and make up the live bluegrass band that accompanies all the songs on stage.

Jesus, in Cotton Patch Gospel, is born in Gainesville, GA to High School football player Joe Davidson, and his girlfriend Mary. They are visited by wise men, after she gives birth in a trailer, behind the motel, and receive gifts like an American Express GOLD Card. In the end, they go to Atlanta, where Jesus is lynched by the KKK.

Stewart is kind of a southern Matthew Broderick in displaying charm and likeability as Jesus. Stewart’s vocals are gentle, pure and “Christ-like.” He maintains a great connection with the audience through his eye contact and movements.

My only complaint is one I am assuming comes from the writers and not Director Chase Kniffen; the fact that Stewart winds up playing so many pivotal characters. Things get a bit muddled in scenes where Stewart must jump back and forth between being Jesus and John or Jesus and Matthew. With five other actors on stage only playing relatively minor parts, it would have seemed more sensible to have the lead actor play only Jesus and the narrator. Putting these demands on one actor might have appeared less burdensome if Stewart displayed more vocal and physical variety in each character. John the Baptizer, for example, was distinguishable as a bigger than life, fire and brimstone Southern Baptist preacher, but many of the other characters tended to meld into any resident of Mayberry RFD. Again, since I have never seen this show before, I am assuming it was written this way.

The Bluegrass band gives a great performance and is adept vocally and instrumentally. At times one voice does out power the others and at other times, things can get off key (like in the song “Blind Date”) but it is hard these days doing live music without voice tracking or autotune (right Beyonce?) They are at all times energetic and entertaining.

One poignant moment (again I don’t know if it is scripted this way or was the director’s choice) came when Corey Wells sang at the lynching/crucifixion after being silent throughout the rest of the show. His soft, innocent tones perfectly enhanced the moment.

Kniffen uses the small space well, especially with exits and entrances throughout the theater. The story is novel, and Chapin’s music is catchy. Cotton Patch Gospel is a hand-clapping, foot-tapping good ol’ time.

Photo Gallery

Photo 6 Photo 5
Photo 3 Photo 7
Photo 4 Photo 1
Photo 2

Photos by Jay Paul

Cast

  • Matthew: Christopher Stewart
  • Lucas: Lucas Hall
  • Drew: H. Drew Perkins
  • Brian: Brian Sulsar
  • Eric: Eric Williams
  • Corey: Corey Wells

Crew

  • Director: Chase Kniffen
  • Set Design: Terrie Powers
  • Light Design: K. Jenna Ferree
  • Costume Design: Marcia Miller-Hailey
  • Musical Director: Drew Perkins

Disclaimer: Virginia Rep provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

This article can be linked to as: http://showbizradio.com/go/9204.

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