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.

Somethin’s Brewin’ at RCTheatre

Cotton Patch Gospel

written by Tom Key & Russell Treyz
with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin

Dates:  Feb 5-14

Showtimes:  Fr/Sat 7:30 & Sun 2:00
Tickets: $25 adults, $15 youth (18 and under)
Group rates available.
Location:  650 N Coit, Richardson, TX
Bring a new or gently used Bible to the show and get your 2nd ticket at half price.
Bibles collected for DALLAS LIFE (the Dallas Life Foundation is designed to meet the needs of homeless men, women, children and families in the Dallas metropolis).


Cotton Patch Gospel is based on Gospels according to Matthew & John in which the life of Jesus is presented in a contemporary, southern setting… Gainesville, Georgia. Fun, high energy, heartwarming. Fresh, new look at this beloved classic.
Director:  Debra Carter
Musical Director:  Joel Bourdier
Cast
Jordan Tomenga
Jack Agnew
Jarvon Hughes
Brandon Edward
Amanda Thompson

Bethany Orick

Country/Bluegrass Band

Joel Bourdier (bass)
Bruce Stevenson (guitar)
Christine Aeschbaucher (violin)
Jason Miller (guitar/mandolin)

 

Somethin’s brewin’ in Gainesville
Wonder what it could be?
Somethin’s bewin’ in Gainesville
Come on down and see…

For Tickets Call 972-690-5029

Cotton Patch is Fun, but Flawed

It’s the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style.  This is Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key & Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin and inspired by a novel from Clarence Jordan.  This musical will have your feet tapping, your hands clapping, and your fingers snapping throughout the night and is currently playing at the Howmet Playhouse.

This musical has long been a personal favorite of mine, though I imagine many have not heard of it.  It was a big hit when it first came out in 1982 and even netted a Los Angeles Dramalogue nomination for Best Actor for Tom Key (who also co-wrote the script).  From an epic score by Harry Chapin to the vibrant, colorful characters created by Key and Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel has all of the elements for a hit show.  I had long hoped for the opportunity to see this play and when I discovered it would be produced at the Howmet Playhouse, I drove 16 ½ hours to see it live.

No, that was not a misprint.

I drove 16 ½ hours to watch this show and it was well worth the drive.  Backed by a powerful quartet of musicians, the 5 person cast, under the direction of Debra Freeberg, provided a very entertaining night of theatre.  Ms Freeburg is to be complimented for some very creative and inventive directing, though there were beats that could have been delved into more deeply.  She also coached solid to excellent performances from her cast.  I was also intrigued by the use of a small cast.  Tom Key wrote the play so it could be performed as a one man show or a full scale production, but this is the first time I have seen a small cast used and that decision worked very well indeed.

Steven Barre was one of the two standout performers of the night.  Barre has a good sense of body language and voice as he easily switched between the humble, but harried, Joe (Jesus’ stepfather), the arrogant and dangerous, Governor Herod, and the conflicted Jud, who ultimately betrays Jesus.  Barre is a very animated actor and his energy and enthusiasm added greatly to his work which was a treat for the eyes and ears.  My only criticism is that Barre’s take on John the Baptizer was too restrained and he needs to let loose and go full force with the zealous preacher.

Barre also has a wonderful 2nd tenor singing voice which was capable of subtle and rich nuances.  From the cold-blooded gloating of Herod’s arranging the murder of innocent children (I Did It) to the sad Joe wondering why Jesus won’t see him (You Are Still My Boy) to a jubilant Apostle (Jubilation), Barre proved himself to be a well rounded performer and a great asset for the show.

Brianna June Clark was the other standout performer of the night.  Ms June Clark had a beautiful, clear soprano singing voice and she knows how to find the emotional beats of a song.  From a soulful, haunting number from a mother who cannot accept the death of her child (Mama is Here) to a wistful dream that Jesus wasn’t dead (One More Tomorrow), Ms June Clark knocked one musical pitch after another out of the park.

She was also just as adept on the acting side of things.  Ms June Clark has an incredible presence and excellent facial expressions along with a good sense of improv.  Whether she was the slightly befuddled Andy, the menacing Governor Pilate, or the Virgin Mary, Ms June Clark was, quite simply, an utter delight.  She also had the funniest moment of the night with her audible nausea at the sight of the victim when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

I wish the show had more than a one weekend run as I sensed a great deal of potential in the performances of Alex Cooke and Annie Bulthuis which could be realized with a longer run.  Both gave solid performances, but they needed a bit of fine tuning.

Both (and the rest of the cast at various points) needed to project more and talk louder to overcome the nearly black box nature of the theatre’s acoustics.  They also need to slow down their delivery a bit and focus a bit more on the beats and nuances of their dialogue.  A lot of humorous lines and dramatic moments didn’t get the emphasis they needed due to their rushing the lines.  I understand that the entire rehearsal process only lasted two weeks which isn’t enough time to get into the grit and gristle of a script.  So they deserve kudos for the solid foundation they developed with their limited preparation time.

Ms Bulthuis has a skillful alto voice which she put to good use in numbers such as “Love the Lord Your God” and “We Gotta Get Organized”.  She also has one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen.  With a slight cock of her eyebrow or a tiny purse of her lips, I was able to follow the thoughts of Ms Bulthuis’ characters without her uttering a single word.  I also thought her interpretation of Rock as slightly less than intelligent to be a very fine and funny bit of acting.

Cooke’s 2nd tenor voice also demonstrated a knack for subtle shades of emotion.  His primary role was that of Jesus and his portrayal of Jesus’ fears and sadness at his imminent lynching in “Goin’ to Atlanta” was not only spot on, but had me shedding a few tears as well.

Though he has no lines, Tim Todd does have a good grasp of pantomime which allowed him to tell his own story and kept him involved in each moment of the show.

There were a few technical flaws during the night.  There was some wicked feedback coming from a speaker at a few points and the actors’ microphones were either failing or their volume was constantly adjusted throughout the show.

Musical Director, Karen Burek, and her Band (Josh Bourdon, Alex Johnson, David Russell, and Lare Williams) do superior work with their stellar musicianship and flawless playing.  Tom Klonowski’s light design was award worthy and Jessica Reilly’s bare bones set was a thing of beauty.

In spite of a few flaws which I believe could be easily overcome with a longer run, Cotton Patch Gospel was an inspiring, moving, and entertaining night of theatre and I want to thank the cast and crew of this show for making my epic journey to see it a worthwhile one.

Cotton Patch Gospel has one final performance on Saturday, August 8 at 7:30pm.  Tickets range from $16 to $20 and can be obtained in person at the Box Office or by calling them at 231-894-2540 one hour before showtime.  They can also be obtained at their website, www.howmetplayhouse.org.  The Howmet Playhouse is located at 304 S Mears Ave in Whitehall, MI.

A Season of Exploration, Part I: The Writer & The Actor

I know.  I know.  You weren’t expecting another story so soon.  Well, I got an early start of things this year.  Earlier than you may think as this tale does not begin with an audition, but with a review.

In early May I went to the Playhouse to review Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and my dear friend, Sonia Keffer, was working the TAG (Theatre Arts Guild) table.  She said she needed to talk to me and asked me if I heard that Bob Fischbach (the critic for our newspaper, Omaha World-Herald) was retiring.  I replied that I had.

Sonia then said Bob had contacted her and the newspaper was not quite certain as to what they were going to do with his position.  The most popular idea was that, at least for the upcoming season, the newspaper would gather a pool of writers, send them out on reviews, and pay them by the article.  He had wanted to include her name and she agreed to be part of it.  Then he asked Sonia, “Do you know a Chris Elston?  I understand he writes reviews.”  She said, “Yes, I know him very well and he writes excellent reviews.”  Bob then asked if she could put him in touch with me and she asked me if it was all right to give him my phone number.

The power of speech momentarily eluded me as I was so pleasantly shocked by this good bit of news.  “The answer is yes,” said Sonia with a smile.  “Yes.  Absolutely yes.  And thank you,” I replied.

When I started this website, I had only hoped to become a viable alternative to the reviews put out by the various papers.  But only now, in less than 2 years’ time, was I beginning to understand the impact my writings had actually had.  And that would be revealed to me even further over the next few weeks.

My review for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ended up becoming my most acclaimed to date.  It really struck a chord with people at the Playhouse as it promoted the heck out of that play with my words.  I cannot tell you what a joy it was to see my words featured when the Playhouse promoted the show on Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail marketing.  It was every bit as satisfying as enjoying a really great role on stage.  Thanks to the constant promotion, my readership doubled over the 5 week run of the show.

Aside from the review, I did speak to Mr. Fischbach who told me a little about the paper’s potential plan and asked if he could include my name in the pool he was gathering for his editor.  I agreed to be included and am still waiting for news on that end.  Even if the paper opts to go in a different direction, it was still an honor to be asked to be considered.  Though I freely admit, getting paid to write about theatre would be icing on an already delectable cake.

A few weeks after my review I attended a Playhouse even in order to meet the new Associate Artistic Director, Jeff Horger.  As I filled out my name tag, the person behind the table said, “Oh, so you’re Chris Elston” before complimenting me on my writings.  That person was the Playhouse’s Marketing/PR Director, Katie Broman, who put me onto the Playhouse’s press list as of that night.  What this means is that I’ll receive a press pass whenever I’m reviewing a show at the Playhouse.  Winning!!

At the meet and greet, I also bumped into my old friend, Lara Marsh, who is getting to direct Lost Boy Found at Whole Foods at the Playhouse next season after getting to direct it as part of their Alternative Programming season this year.  I may audition for it again this year, but I have not yet decided if I’d rather act in it or learn about directing from it.  I asked Lara about the possibility of shadowing her for it if I decided not to act and if my schedule allowed it.  While nothing is set in stone, it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility that this show may be my foot in the door of directing.

Actually, Lara became the second director I might be able to shadow next season.  The first was Amy Lane, the Playhouse’s former Resident Director now Assistant Professor of Theatre at Creighton University.  My old friend, Sherry Fletcher, recommended her to me as someone who was very big on developing talent in that field and she happens to be a close friend of Sonia’s, too.  Both of us happened to be at TAG Nite Out for Sabrina Fair and I approached her about the possibility of sitting under her learning tree for direction and she asked me to message her closer to the time that she is about to start her guest directing stint at the Playhouse for Love, Loss and What I Wore.  So I may have 2 possibilities to learn a bit about directing next season.

With all of these wonderful opportunities presenting themselves to me, I felt a semi-dormant part of me begin to awaken.  I wanted to tell a story again.

So I auditioned for the Playhouse season premiere, Mauritius, which marks the solo directorial debut of Jeff Horger.  I do not know much about the story except that it centers around 2 half-sisters who may own 2 rare Blue Mauritius stamps.  One girl wants to sell them and three thieves (a charming con artist, a crabby stamp expert, and a dangerous psychopath) want to get their hands on the stamps.  I went into the audition with nothing more than the hope of making a good impression.

It was good to keep my hopes at that level because, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this play has a very small cast (2f 3m).  A lot of people came out to audition.  I’d estimate that close to 90 people came out over the two nights meaning that 85 people were going to hear the dreaded “no”.  And there was some keen, heavyweight competition at the auditions.

For my part I was pleased with my work and I believe it had a positive impact.  Based off of my observations, the new style of auditions is designed to make decisions very quickly.  By that I mean, if you do not have the qualities the director is looking for, you will get one read before being dismissed.  I got to read twice so I must have been doing something right.  I read for the con artist and the psychopath.  Of the two I felt that my read for the con artist was probably the better of the two, especially since the psychopath needs a dominating physical presence that I lack.  Putting it in plain terms, I don’t look like the type of guy who would beat someone to a pulp.

I did not receive a callback, so I knew I would be out of the running, but was pleased at the new and fresh faces that did make it into the show.  Luckily, I had another audition all lined up.

The Playhouse is bringing back their Alternative Programming season in full force this season with 9 events.  Three of the shows all had auditions last week.

I had been expecting wall to wall actors for this event, but imagine my surprise when I saw maybe a dozen actors at the second night and I could not imagine the first night being of much greater volume.  I ended up reading 9 times over a 75 minute period.

The first show I read for was A Steady Rain which is a 2 man duologue (meaning that both actors are giving monologues to the audience) about best friends who are cops.  One is dirty and the other is an alcoholic.  It was being directed by Christina Rohling and I first read for the dirty cop.  It was a pretty good read, though I seemed to be fighting myself a bit for some reason.  I instinctively felt the need for physical action and was squashing it to a degree.  Still the read was on target.

After my first read, Christina said, “That was really good” before asking me a bit about my theatrical background.  I told her I had been in theatre for 20 years, but had not performed in 2 and that my past two years had been focused on my website.  When she heard about the website she said, “I think I’ve read some of your stuff”.  It was then that I was struck by the oddity that I had become better known in the  theatre community for 2 years of writing than for 20 years of acting.  Amazing where those roads can take us.

Anyway, I then read a scene as the alcoholic cop with another guy named Tony (who read brilliantly).  It was a pretty good scene, but very tricky to pull off due to not being certain when I was simply telling a story and when, or if, I was interacting with Tony.  It was my last read for that show and I knew it would be the toughest to get into due to the numbers game.

I then read for Take Me Out which tells the story of a baseball player who comes out of the closet.  This one was being directed by Noah Diaz and I first read for the team manager.  Noah asked me to do some big physical action at some point and I had the perfect spot.  I read the letter very professionally.  The thrust of the letter is how the manager admires the player for his bravery in making his revelations and how honored he’d be if he were his son’s teacher or lover.  But he finishes with the whiny cry, “But did it have to be baseball?!!!” and I collapsed to the ground in a loud babyish whine.  In fact, my only regret was that I didn’t go more over the top since I had been given carte blanche to do so.

Noah had me read it again, but told me that he felt the scene had 3 tonal shifts and he wanted me to read it again with those shifts.  I did and Doug Blackburn’s acting boot camp came back to me and I felt I shifted 5 or 6 times and I was pleased with the work.  Finally, Noah had me read it once more with Tony and we read a scene between the baseball player and his best friend.

We read the scene and I made the friend, Kippy, laid back and jokey.  It was a nice read, but I actually reversed one of the jokes since I mistakenly thought Kippy was gay and his comment about being on the same team was a reference to the 2 characters shared orientation.  Noah had us read it one more time with some adjustments and he asked me to make Kippy a bit more serious and dependable and he corrected my mistaken interpretation of Kippy so I got the team joke right on the second go around.

After that, Noah said he seen all he needed to see from me which left me one more show for which to read.

That show was Civil War Voices which is based off of actual letters, diaries, and other writings that took place during the Civil War and will be directed by Jeff Horger.  Again, I was doing something right as Jeff read me three times.  First I read a love letter from a character named Theo.  Then I read a diary entry from a military commander named Chamberlin.  Finally I read a historian, but he asked me to do it in a Presidential voice since I had expressed an interest in Abe Lincoln.  I felt I did well in all of my reads.  Then Jeff asked me a bit about my theatrical background and I gave him the same story I had given to Christina.  After those reads, I went home for the night.

A week passed which I took as a most promising sign.  The longer I avoided rejection, the better my chances, I reasoned.  But late Wednesday afternoon, I took a quick one-two combo to the ego.  I was checking my e-mail and I saw I had rejection notices for both A Steady Rain and Take Me Out waiting for me.

I was quite surprised by how much the wind had been taken out of my sails.  But in a strange way, I was also glad because it told me that my mojo had not faded as I had feared.  I had genuinely wanted to do these shows and was truly disappointed at not being selected.  But there was still hope as I had not yet had any word about Civil War Voices.

Then came Thursday afternoon.  My office phone rang and on the other end was the bright voice of Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Administrative Assistant.  She said that Jeff wanted to offer me the role of Abraham Lincoln.

That was about the last role I expected to get.  In a full production, I don’t think I would have been seriously considered for the role as I’m not a physical match for Honest Abe.  But in reader’s theatre, I thought there might be a chance.  And it worked out!  After giving one of the firmest yeses I’ve ever given, I hung up the phone with a song in my heart and a jaunty tune on my lips.

And that brings us to the end of this tale.  Rehearsals begin in August just after I get back from a theatre festival in Whitehall, MI where I’ll get to watch one of my favorite shows, Cotton Patch Gospel, and review 3 B & Bs on the long journey.  I look forward to this new adventure as well as more stories during this season of exploration.

Until we meet again. . .