Bluff City Theater’s ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ Flips the Script

Something’s brewin in Gainesville.  Wonder what it could be?  Something’s brewin in Gainesville.  Come on down and see.  Come on down and see the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style and an extra twist as well.  It’s Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin and based off a book by Clarence Jordan.  It is playing at Hannibal City Hall under the auspices of Bluff City Theater.

In the intro I alluded to an extra twist with this particular rendition of Cotton Patch Gospel.  In keeping with its tradition of turning established shows on their heads, this production is comprised almost entirely of female performers and that includes the two primary roles of the Narrator and Jesus.

Some might think that’s shocking, but it really isn’t and this is why.  Tom Key wrote this play in a very unique way.  It can be done as a full cast or a small cast or, in true storytelling format, a one person show.  That last style is exactly how this show is presented.  The Narrator (Taylor Pietz) starts telling the story as an audience member after the first number and then takes over the stage as she becomes most of the main characters as she shares the story of Jesus.

Herbie Barnes does a pretty sophisticated bit of direction with this piece.  I greatly admired his staging of the show as he made stellar use of the fixedness of the council room.  The chorus would pop in and out from behind the bench for certain scenes and numbers and his narrator used every inch of the space to tell this story.  He also thoroughly understood the twists and beats of this tale and led his two primary actors to capable and potent performances as they told that story.

Taylor Pietz plays. . .pretty much everyone who isn’t Jesus.  It is a grueling and grand performance as Ms Pietz effortlessly and easily transforms herself into numerous different characters and she does it with such subtlety.  She pulls her shoulders back and adopts a slight sneer and she’s a rather vile Herod.  Putting on a stole, she’s a high energy John the Baptist.  With a slump of her shoulders and tears in her eyes, she’s a sympathetic Jud who believes betraying Jesus will ultimately save him.  That particular performance is one of her strongest of the night as she plays both the broken Jud and the villainous Dr. Caiaphas (done with veiled, disdainful eyes and miming the smoking of a cigarette) in an intense conversation as the plot to arrest Jesus is created.

Ms Pietz’s voice is quite heavenly.  She’s got a glorious soprano that goes almost operatic on occasion and she has that ability to act through her songs as she never drops character.  Notable numbers were her Herod proudly taking credit for the murder of innocent children in “I Did It”.  A harried Simon “Rock” Johnson trying to organize Jesus’ takeover in “We Gotta Get Organized”.  Two of my favorites of hers were a somber take on “Are We Ready?” that kicks off Act II and a hopeful, joyous rendition of “Jubilation”.

Courtney Friday pulls double duty as Jesus and as Assistant Musical Director for the show.  She has the right qualities for the Son of Man as she projects a real sense of innocence and goodness.  But I also see loads of untapped potential in her lines and I would love to see her play with the words a bit more to maximize the full force of her role.

Her musical chops are quite top of the line.  Not only did she and musical director Colin Healy lead the band to top notch performances of the score, they also rearranged it a bit which I believe added a bit of vitality to the show.  Ms Friday is also a wonderful singer with a wide range as she could sing alto and soprano equally well.  Top songs from her were a sad, haunted take on “Goin’ to Atlanta” as her Jesus fears his imminent lynching and the joyous “Well I Wonder” to close the show.

The two ladies are supported by a chorus of little girls who have voices of angels and flesh out crowd scenes and provide a little choreography to some of the musical numbers.  But I would like to single out Evie Rodenbaugh for a stellar performance.  She has a natural instinct for acting as she was fully invested in the action of the play and added tiny little details that added so much.  Most impressive was a touching moment when she was weeping over the dead daughter of a government official that Jesus raises from the dead.

Chris Davis’ lights are quite amazing, especially considering his having to adapt them to a most unusual performance space.  His idea of using flashlights for the night of Jesus’ arrest is inspired.  The band of Erich Eastman, Jacob Mreen, and Brendan Rodgers provide some great music and a few comedic moments as well.  Eastman, in particular, has a beautiful tenor singing voice well utilized in a few solos.

All in all, I found it to be a very satisfying night of theatre, especially with the superhuman storytelling abilities of Taylor Pietz.  This production truly gives truth to the line “The Greatest Story Ever Retold”.

Cotton Patch Gospel plays at Hannibal City Hall through August 4.  Performances are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm plus a Saturday matinee at 2pm.  Tickets cost $26 for adults and $15 for children.  For tickets, visit www.bluffcitytheater.com or www.eventshannibal.org or call 573-719-3226.  Hannibal City Hall is located at 320 Broadway in Hannibal, MO.

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.

Eureka, Ho!!, Day 3: The Faith Spelunker

After sipping my sherry, I made use of the Jacuzzi tub and enjoyed a long hot bath before turning in for the night.  It was one of the most comfortable sleeps I have ever enjoyed.  The mattress almost seemed to consist of memory foam and perhaps it did.  All I know is that the combination of comfy mattress and lull of my trusty fan put my lights out good and proper.

When I awoke the next morning, I did a quick news check to find out who won at the Omaha Playhouse’s Awards Night and did a brief write-up for the theatre news part of my website.  I had a shave and then went downstairs to breakfast.

A glass of water and a carafe of orange-cranberry juice waited on my table.  Zoie placed a small dish of grapes and cream in front of me along with my massage certificate and tickets for a few events I had paid for online.  After the fruit had been eaten, Zoie presented me with 3 sausage links nestled on a bed of Mexican eggs.  A little dash of hot sauce made this meal a delicious and zesty affair.

A dish of grapes and cream to start the day.

A dish of grapes and cream to start the day.

Sausage links on a bed of Mexican eggs.

Sausage links on a bed of Mexican eggs.

I went back to my room and finished my Cannon novel.  Then I grabbed my keys and headed to Focus Massage for a one hour massage at the hands of Mimi Vail who bore a strong resemblance to the actress, Linda Hunt.  Her ministrations brought full mobility to my shoulders and energized me for the rest of the day.

From there, I drove to Berryville, AR so I could experience the Cosmic Caverns.  I was part of a small tour group led by Griffin (a surprisingly mature looking 17 year old) who spent the better part of an hour showing us the myriad rock formations, pure natural onyx (he flashed a light through it to show the translucence), and the two bottomless lakes (no, not literally, they’re just very deep).

The OMG room.

The OMG room.

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Would you believe this guy is only 17?

Would you believe this guy is only 17?

On the drive back to Eureka Springs, I made a quick pullover to enjoy the view of a scenic outlook.  After snapping some quick photos I made my way to Thorncrown Chapel.

Scenic overlook

Scenic overlook

Called “one of the finest religious spaces of modern times” by critics and ranked fourth on the list of the top buildings of the twentieth century by the AIA, Thorncrown Chapel is a awe-inspiring structure of wood and glass.  So skillfully designed, you may, like I did, make the mistake of assuming that the clear space is merely “open” space.  In reality it is 6,000 feet of glass divided into 425 windows.

Thorncrown Chapel

Thorncrown Chapel

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Thorncrown Chapel’s construction also had an interesting story behind it.  In 1971, Jim Reed purchased the land where Thorncrown Chapel would eventually be built.  People often stopped by to admire the property and the view of the Ozark hills, so Jim decided to build a glass chapel so visitors would have a place to relax in an inspiring way.

On March 23, 1979, work began on the chapel.  But halfway through construction the money ran out and, despite his best efforts, Jim was unable to gain more funding.  One night, Jim took what he thought would be his last walk to look at his half-finished chapel and then had an experience.  As Jim said, “I am not proud of the fact, but the first time I ever got down on my knees was on the chapel floor.  I prayed more seriously than ever before.  All the trials and tribulations gave me the humility to get on my knees.”  A few days later, a miracle occurred when a generous woman from Illinois loaned Jim the money to complete construction.  On July 10, 1980, Thorncrown Chapel was open to the public.

Thorncrown Chapel is dedicated to Jesus’ words that all would be welcome at His Father’s table.  The chapel actually does hold 2 worship services on Sunday and stresses that all are invited to attend.  An attendant is present during visiting hours to pray with those who wish to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation.

Visiting this chapel had a profound effect on me.  My faith has always been an important part of my life and I can honestly say I felt the presence of God clearly as I sat in that chapel.  I just felt such a feeling of peace and warmth that tears began to fill my eyes.  If you’re in Eureka Springs, you must visit this chapel.  For those who believe, you’ll feel closer to the Lord.  For those who don’t or simply aren’t sure, well, you just might before your visit is over.

I returned to the inn for a few hours of relaxation and compiling my notes.  Then it was time for my big event of the evening:  watching The Great Passion Play.

Originally, I had intended to actually review the show.  However, I ended up deciding against it for two very important reasons:

  1. There was no program, so writing a proper review would have been very difficult.
  2. This wasn’t a typical play as its purpose was to tell the story of Jesus’ redeeming of humanity as opposed to being an ordinary play.

The play is held in an outdoor amphitheatre and the grounds also contain a Bible museum, a replica of the Holy Land, as well as the famous Christ of the Ozarks statue (the biggest in the United States).  The play is world famous having been seen by 7.8 million people since it began in 1968.

Christ of the Ozarks

Christ of the Ozarks

The set is the most impressive I have ever seen.  It really gives one the feeling of being in Jerusalem back in the time of Christ.  The costumes are also well suited to the show and there are some pretty nifty special and lighting effects to the production.  It features a cast of over 140 actors and a menagerie of live animals.

Set of The Great Passion Play

Set of The Great Passion Play

The dialogue for the show is pre-recorded so the performers pantomime over the dialogue and the mimed performances were quite good.  Putting on my critic’s hat for a moment, the interpretation of the dialogue was mediocre and sounded like the records I liked to listen to as a child.  Then again, this play was meant to share a message as opposed to being a proper production.

All in all, it was a memorable and moving show and I would highly recommend watching it if you find yourself in Eureka Springs.  As for myself, I was whipped after the day’s shenanigans and have returned wearily to the inn to climb into bed.

Until the next time. . .

Superstar Soars

From the first notes of Jim Boggess and his superlative orchestra, you will be catapulted on an amazing journey for the eyes, ears, and heart as you experience the last week of Jesus’ life told in the style of a rock opera.  This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is, by far, the best musical ever mounted on an Omaha stage and Kimberly Faith Hickman deserves a standing ovation of her own for an extraordinary display of direction and choreography.  Never is there a wasted beat, nuance, or moment and you will be riveted to this incredibly powerful story from beginning to end.  It has been updated so that the tale now takes place in modern times which I believe strengthens its relevance.  Jesus and his followers are now street people living in a derelict shantytown while Pilate and the high priests are well dressed businessmen.  Lydia Dawson’s masterful costuming and Jim Othuse’s deceptively simple set perfectly catch the mood of this update.

This is one of those shows where I truly wish I’d be able to single out every performer individually in a review, but for the sake of brevity, let me say that this cast is phenomenal.  Each and every one is always in the moment and exudes an incredible amount of energy that helps propel the show to unimaginable heights.  Among the talented ensemble were a few standout performances that deserve special notice such as Zach Kloppenborg’s portrayal of the obsequious, irritating suck up Annas.   His whining tenor wonderfully grates on your nerves throughout the night.  Jimmy Nguyen’s Peter was a surprising delight as his strong, supple singing voice completely belies his slight frame.  Jerry Van Horn rules the stage as King Herod as he smarmily tries to get Jesus to prove his divinity in “Herod’s Song”.

Roderick Cotton is a marvel as Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot.  Oddly enough, he is actually the centerpiece of this story as it is told from his point of view.  Cotton makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Judas as he is Jesus’ right hand man, but fears things are getting out of control now that people believe that Jesus is the son of God (Heaven on Their Minds) while he is convinced Jesus is just a wise teacher.  Cotton’s powerful tenor is capable of capturing a wide range of emotion from sneering superiority as he blasts Mary Magdalene for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment in “Everything’s Alright” to desperation as he feels compelled to betray Jesus for his own good in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” to anger as he confronts Jesus at “The Last Supper”.

Cotton is also a treat to watch in his silent moments as his expressions are crystal clear and tell a story all of their own.  Not only is it a striking performance, I believe it has the potential to be an award winning one at the end of the season.

John Gajewski handles the role of Jesus with grace and aplomb.  His dynamite tenor reaches searing and soaring falsettos that would make Ted Neeley proud.  Gajewski’s Jesus really emphasizes his human nature and reminds us that Jesus felt the same emotions as every other person.  Rarely have I heard such subtle, outstanding nuance in a voice as Gajewski glides from tender love and hope for his followers to understand the truth of his mission in “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”, to supreme confidence in his message in “Hosanna”, to fury at the desecration of his Father’s house in “The Temple”, to frustration with his followers not getting it in “The Last Supper”, and caps it off with a haunting acceptance of his death in “Gethsemane”.

Gajewski’s expressions and body language are just as subtle.  Particularly telling were the weariness in his face when he accepts his destiny in “Gethsemane” and his pained suffering as he is scourged in “Trial by Pilate”.  Both moments had me searching for a tissue.

Many experienced performers would be envious of the stage presence and confidence possessed by young Roni Shelley Perez who plays Mary Magdalene.  Her sweet soprano captures utter devotion to Jesus as she comforts him in “Everything’s Alright”, a perplexed confusion in her dominating solo “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and a slow understanding of the truth of Jesus in “Could We Start Again, Please?”  Her performance was one of the night’s many highlights.

Also spectacular were Cork Ramer as the high priest, Caiphas, and Michael Markey as Pontius Pilate.  Ramer’s flawless bass exudes a dark menace as he plots to eliminate Jesus in “Jesus Must Die” and a mocking congratulations and thank you to Judas in “Judas’ Death”.  Markey’s facile baritone paints a picture of a man reluctant to execute the innocent Jesus, but who finally buckles under the extreme pressure in “Trial by Pilate”.

A few minor missteps in diction, projection, and dancing did not distract from this entrancing, beautiful, and moving night of theatre.  As Saturday’s sellout crowd indicates, this show is already morphing into a massive success.  Get a ticket before it’s too late to see this epic hit and potential awards season darling.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until April 4 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Wed-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $40 for adults and $25 for students.  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.