Something Brewing at Springer Opera House

The cast of ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ Back row (L to R): Justin Belew, Isiah Harper, Dean Justice, Jeff Snider Seated: Michelle Justice Kneeling: Keith Patrick McCoy

Columbus, GA–Dubbed “The Greatest Story Ever Re-Told,” Cotton Patch Gospel is the exuberant musical that tells the story of the life of Jesus, but set in modern-day, rural Georgia.  Jesus is born the son of a carpenter in Gainesville, meets a country preacher named John the Baptizer on the banks of the Chattahoochee and delivers the Sermon on the Mount on Stone Mountain.

The show will run as part of the Springer Opera House’s Outdoor Theatre Festival along with other musicals and children’s theatre shows. Opening March 24 in the newly-built Springer amphitheater, Cotton Patch Gospel arrives just in time for the Easter season.

“In this season of renewal, rebirth, and hope, Cotton Patch Gospel is just what the world needs right now,” explained Springer producing artistic director Paul Pierce.  “With music by the late, great Harry Chapin (Cat’s in the Cradle, Taxi) Cotton Patch Gospel is marked by a feeling of childlike belief, wonder and simple reverence.”

“We all remember the Sunday school lesson where the teacher asked, “What if Jesus were born today? How would you react?”  This show takes that simple question and brings it to life,” Pierce said.

The script was adapted from the Rev. Clarence Jordan’s book “Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John” by Tom Key and Russell Treyz.  Tom Key was the long-time artistic director of The Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta who recently retired.  Mr. Key collaborated with Grammy Hall of Fame honoree, Harry Chapin – one of the most beloved singer-songwriters in music history – to create the songs for Cotton Patch Gospel. Chapin won Grammy Awards in the 1970s for chart-topping hits like Cat’s in the Cradle, Taxi, Dreams Go By, W.O.L.D. and Sunday Morning Sunshine.

Connection to Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center for Housing

“Cotton Patch” author Rev. Clarence Jordan was a farmer who grew up in nearby Talbotton, Georgia, and sought to improve the lives of sharecroppers through scientific farming techniques. He was ordained at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and obtained a Ph.D. in Greek New Testament in 1938. In 1942, Jordan and his wife, Florence, founded Koinonia Farm, a 440-acre interracial farming community near Americus, Georgia.  As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, Koinonia Farm became the target of boycotts, violence, and bombings.

In the 1960s, as hostilities subsided in Sumter County, Jordan turned his attention to writing and speaking.  Through his expertise in New Testament Greek, Jordan translated the Synoptic Gospels using homespun language that his Southern audiences could relate to. Thus, Jerusalem became Atlanta, Pontius Pilate became the Governor of Georgia and Bethlehem became Gainesville. 

In 1965, two millionaires, Millard and Linda Fuller, from Lanett, Alabama, became dissatisfied with their wealthy and privileged lifestyle and moved to Koinonia Farm to serve Rev. Jordan’s mission.  The partnership resulted in the founding of Habitat for Humanity in 1976 and later, the Fuller Center for Housing. Fuller is internationally regarded as the founder of the affordable housing movement.

The Springer Production

Cotton Patch Gospel stars Keith Patrick McCoy as the apostle Matthew, who tells the story of Jesus’ life: birth to death to Resurrection.  Harry Chapin’s songs span musical styles from country to blues to folk to Gospel to bluegrass to jazz. The on-stage band is comprised of Michelle Justice, Justin Belew, Isiah Harper, Dean Justice and Jeff Snider. Pierce is the director of the show.

Cotton Patch Gospel runs March 24, 25, April 2 at 8:00 pm and March 27, 28, and April 3 at 2:30 pm. For tickets, call the Springer box office at 706-327-3688 or visit the Springer website at springeroperahouse.org.  Group rates are available for churches, youth groups, and senior groups.

Photo provided by Allie Kent

Wonderfully Worshipful ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ Flies with the Angels

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.