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.