He was laid in an apple crate in Gainesville, GA, baptized in the Chattahoochee River, and lynched for the sins of humanity. If you think this story sounds awfully familiar, you’d be right. It is the story of Jesus presented in a countrified fashion in Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key and Russell Treyz based on works by Clarence Jordan with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin. It is currently playing in the LRS Theatre at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.
While lesser known than some of its contemporaries, I’ve long considered Cotton Patch Gospel to be the best of the Gospel musicals. Tonight’s production only served to strengthen that belief as Ken Bradbury and his cast and musicians came out with all guns a blazing in the best iteration of this show I have seen in a truly magical night of theatre.
Bradbury carries an unusually heavy load in this show as he served as director, musical director, played several instruments, and essayed a couple of roles too. His direction is exceptionally sharp with strong staging that makes use of the entire performance space, sometimes even the entire theatre. He has also led his 2 primary actors to unbelievably nuanced and gripping performances.
His musical direction is virtually flawless as he and his band (Carrie Carls, Barry Cloyd, Rob Killam, Mark Mathewson, and Danny McLaughlin) brought Harry Chapin’s score to bright and colorful life. Bradbury is also an exceptional actor in his own right, projecting subtle menace as Herod as he calmly orders the bombing of an orphanage in an attempt to kill Jesus and milks a pregnant pause to fullest effect as the oily Governor Pilate.
The band not only supplies the music, but they also sing a great deal of the tunes and become characters in the story at various points. Rob Killam is cool and smooth with the stand up bass while Mark Mathewson brings a lot of fun with the mandolin. Danny McLaughlin is not only a great guitar player, but is an incredibly energetic performer whether he was hoofing it across the water before nearly drowning as Simon “Rock” Johnson or raining fire and brimstone on sinners as John the Baptizer. Though his intentions were pretty spot-on, McLaughlin does need to tighten his internal cues a bit.
I thought the work of Carrie Carls and Barry Cloyd was truly something special. Ms Carls has a very wide singing range, being a natural soprano who can easily go alto on a moment’s notice. She was quite adept at picking out the emotional beats of a song, particularly shining as a grieving mother who cannot accept the death of her baby in Mama is Here and bringing a soft jubilance in Jubilation.
Cloyd is a master of the banjo and also shows some good comedic chops of his own as he wrestles with a fish when Jesus tells him he’ll catch a big one if he casts with his left hand. But his lower tenor voice is his greatest asset best utilized in the melancholic Are We Ready? and the wistful You Are Still My Boy.
As essential as the band and music are to the story, this musical also needs top notch actors to drive the narrative and this show has that needed quality in the forms of Nathan Carls and Greg Floyd. Both men brought a passion, energy, and animation to their roles that kept me hooked from start to finish and made them astoundingly fun to watch.
Nathan Carls is outstanding as Matthew. As the play’s narrator, Carls carries the bulk of the show’s dialogue, skillfully navigating its numerous beats. At one moment he does a little soft shoe because he’s excited about going to Atlanta, in the next he’s the rigid taxman meeting Jesus for the first time, the next heartbreakingly devastated as he relates the story of Jesus’ lynching. And his expressions. . .so clean and clear. His disgust at singing Spitball and the aching sadness in his face as he slams a chair to the ground to indicate Jesus’ lynching were highlights of the night. Carls also possesses a fine tenor voice best featured in the hopeful When I Look Up and the spritely We’re Gonna Love it While it Lasts.
Greg Floyd is an absolutely remarkable Jesus. He brings an innocence and purity crucial for the Son of God to the role and yet he still manages to exude a quiet confidence and authority that shows he is Lord. Floyd is also able to capture the heavier moments of Jesus’ mission with equal aplomb. Some of the play’s best moments occur when his beautiful high tenor voice musically asks, “What does Atlanta mean to me?” in Goin to Atlanta and his haunting request to God that he be able to accomplish his Father’s mission without suffering his vicious death during the Agony in the Rock Garden.
This production also rates strong praise for its technical quality. Steven Varble’s beautifully simple set evokes the sense of a rural setting with its outline of a ranch house, windmill, and crates. Gene Hinckley’s lights greatly added to the emotional tone of the show with their vibrant colors.
I thought a beat here and there could have been struck differently and the pacing needed some fine tuning at a couple of points, but these minor quibbles were easily overlooked in the overall quality of the play. My biggest disappointment is that a show this good only gets a 2 week run. With that being said, I would recommend getting a ticket as quick as you can because when the word starts getting out, this show is going to start selling out.
Cotton Patch Gospel runs at the LRS Theatre in the Hoogland Center for the Arts through March 12. Showtimes are 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors and can be obtained by calling 217-523-2787 or visiting www.hcfta.org. The Hoogland Center for the Arts is located at 420 S 6th St in Springfield, IL.