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.