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.

Cotton Patch Redux, Days 3 & 4: Cotton Patchless

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Thornton Inn

I imagine you saw the title and thought, “Huh?”  Unfortunately, it is true.  Have you ever had one of those days where fate seemed to conspire against you?  Well, I had that day on Friday and that conspiracy caused me to miss Cotton Patch Gospel. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The drive to Arlington was a shorter trip though somewhat marred by bumpy roads, construction, and heavy Friday traffic.  After weeding through the obstacles, I finally found myself in the town of Arlington where I would be staying at the Thornton Inn owned and operated by Sunny and Terry Graham.

Thornton Inn is quite unique in the sense that it is actually a renovated fraternity house.  The house is actually one of the oldest homes in Arlington being built in the early 1900s.  Eventually it became a frat house until a ruling by the University of Texas-Arlington decreed that all fraternity and sorority houses had to be located on campus.  The home was bought by the Grahams to be used as an office for Sunny’s real estate brokerage.  A suggestion that the home would make a good B & B inspired the Grahams to restore the house to its former scholarly glory and open it to guests in 2013.

Sunny and Terry are very kind hosts and great conversationalists.  Terry, in particular, is full of many incredible tales.  Terry led me to my room, the Remington, which housed a massive king bed which has been one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in and a beautiful modern bathroom with a shower that reminded me of the “Car Wash” in the now defunct Quill and Quilt of Cannon Falls, MN.

After settling in, Terry was kind enough to print out better directions for the Repertory Company Theatre.  After dressing for the play, I briefly toyed with the idea of arranging for a taxi to take me as I was tired after several days of driving.  In hindsight, I wish I had gone with the idea.

Under the best of circumstances, the drive from Thornton Inn to Repertory Company Theatre is about 40 minutes.  What I had to deal with was anything but the best of circumstances.

The journey must be experienced as it is very difficult to describe the roads used to travel from Arlington to Richardson.  One must use the LBJ Freeway and the George Bush Turnpike which consists of a maze of roads and exits which could easily baffle much better drivers than myself.

I was actually doing pretty well and wasn’t too far from my exit point when I saw an electronic sign flash the message that an accident had occurred right where I needed to exit and traffic ground to a halt.  I managed to get around the accident, breathing a sigh of relief that I had given myself 90 minutes just in case.  Then I faced my second problem.

My directions said one had to stay to the left in order to make the necessary turn.  Well, I followed those instructions to the letter. . .and it put me back on the freeway.  Not a problem, I got off at the next exit and got turned back around as precious minutes ticked away.

I found my road and thought I would make it in time to the show, but then I glanced at the road signs where, to my mounting horror, I suddenly saw I was somehow on a different street.  It turns out that the roads in Richardson are not unlike the roads in Flagstaff, AZ.  In Flagstaff if you turn left, the road is Apple Street.  But if you turn left, it’s Blueberry Street.  In Richardson, you need to be in just the right lane or you may find yourself on a road other than the one you want.

I desperately tried to find my road again, getting directions from a gas station.  I finally got back to my road and found the area where the theatre was located, but knew it was an exercise in futility as the show had already started.  I heaved a frustrated sigh and headed back to the inn.

I debated about whether or not I wanted to try again the next night, but there were problems with that.  I knew that each performance had less than 3 rows of seats still available before starting the trip so I wasn’t sure if I could still get a ticket.  You also cannot buy tickets online once it its 24 hours before showtime.  You can call the theatre for a ticket, but the box office doesn’t open until an hour before curtain.  Assuming I could still get a ticket, I still would have had the 40+ minute journey to re-endure.  It was too much of a gamble.  I wrote a letter to the theatre thanking them for Friday’s ticket and explaining why I was unable to make it.

The stress of the failed trip took a toll on my sleep as I woke up during the night with my body going through symptoms similar to a panic attack.  A few deep breaths brought my twitching body back under control and the comfort of the bed helped me fall back asleep.

Terry and Sunny were very sympathetic about my plight.  Terry felt guilty as he had printed out directions for me, but I assured him he could have done nothing more.  The bad luck was completely beyond his control.  But the delicious breakfast of breakfast tacos, fruit, bacon, and a hash brown helped perk me up.

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Breakfast tacos

Luckily I had a relaxing activity planned for the day.  I had arranged for a 90 minute massage at the Sanford House Bed and Breakfast and Spa.  Under Margo’s ministrations I felt my body loosen up and unwind and some cheese and water afterwards helped complete the treatment.  The Sanford Spa is definitely worth a visit if you want some pampering.

Afterwards, I headed to the Parks at Arlington mall where I wandered around briefly before returning to the inn where I watched some Elementary, finished a video game, and caught a nap.

I attended worship services at St Maria Goretti Catholic Church.  This was a beautiful church and the people were so welcoming.  It was a nice service with a good sermon from Father.

When worship had ended and under the suggestion from Sunny, I had dinner at Babe’s Chicken Dinner House.  Sunny had raved about their food and the crowd that met me certainly testified to the quality of the meal as it was packed to the rafters.  Even as the dynamic uno, I had to wait 30 minutes for a table.

But it was worth the wait.  Babe’s is better as a group as it is family style dining.  You get your choice of one of 5 meats and sides of corn, biscuits, salad, green beans, gravy, and mashed potatoes are brought on.  I opted for chicken fried steak which I managed to eat half of and helped myself to a little of each of the sides.  The mashed potatoes are the best I’ve ever tasted.  Price is about $15 per person, so it is very reasonable for the quality and quantity of food.

When dinner was done, I did a little work posting photos, but found myself uninspired to write.  I decided to go to bed.

The next morning I had a filling breakfast of French toast, fruit, bacon, and sausage to strengthen me for the drive home.

I truly did enjoy my time at Thornton Inn and you cannot find better hosts than Sunny and Terry.  If you find yourself in Arlington, do yourself a favor and book a room here.

Off to the Cotton Patch, Days 2 & 3: A Journey of Ups, Downs, & Mistaken Identity

After that bracing breakfast, I hit the road.  Little did I know that this was going to be one long, agonizing drive.

West Dundee is only 34 miles away from Chicago and I made the astonishing discovery that Chicago area drivers are apparently training for NASCAR.  Illinois is doing a ton of construction on the interstate and the speed limit was only supposed to be 55 miles an hour.  Based on my observations, I came to the conclusion that the speed limit was apparently just a suggestion because I was the only person who seemed to be obeying the limit.  Every other car was just blitzing by me.

To say I was nervous was an understatement.  The combination of the heavy construction, massive traffic, and battalion of speedsters actually caused me to feel knuckle whitening, heart palpitating, panic.  I had to take a couple of deep breaths to actually bring my nerves back under control.  This may be the norm for big city drivers, but this was my first experience driving through a really big metro area and it was a bit of a shock.

My frustrations were further fueled by the fact that I had to watch out for the toll booths.  I accidentally missed my first toll booth on Halsted Street.  The signs had said to keep to the right so I did.  Right before the booth, the road opened up even further to the right.  It happened so suddenly that I wasn’t able to change lanes and soared right through the I-Pass.  Fortunately, I was able to go online later that night and pay the fee I missed.

After I got out of the Chicago area, the traffic slowed to more normal speeds, but the speed limit stayed at 55 miles an hour.  Even worse, when I finally crossed the border into Indiana, I found that they were still doing the construction being done when I last passed through in 2008.  Traffic was so congested that it ground to a halt and I plodded along at a rate that had snails making fun of me.

It took 3.5 hours to make the journey from West Dundee to the Michigan border where I finally was able to resume the normal speed limit of 70 miles an hour.  The drive became a lot more pleasant after that. . .until I reached Holland, MI.

Traffic was going along pretty well and I saw a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the distance.  I needed a few toiletries and decided I’d just get them now.  After buying my supplies, I got back on the road and traffic ground to a halt again!  Apparently the road I was on was the main thoroughfare for a few cities and it was now rush hour.

What should have been a four hour journey ended up being a 6.5 hour drudgery and I arrived in Whitehall, MI much, much later than intended.  I was tired, frazzled, and starved when I finally pulled up to the White Swan Bed and Breakfast.

Then things began looking up.

The first break I caught that day was that the Howmet Playhouse where I would watch and review Cotton Patch Gospel was literally right across the street from the bed and breakfast.  The second break was that I met Cathy Russell, the sweet and kindly owner of the White Swan.

The White Swan

The White Swan

Cathy showed me to my home away from home, the Jasmine Room.  The soft white of the room and the plush looking bed seemed to scream comfort and I felt myself begin to loosen up.  I think Cathy noticed my weariness as she asked if I had eaten and I told her that my journey woes prevented me from having anything since breakfast.  She prepared a plate of Michigan blueberries, cheese, and sweet potato Triscuits along with a glass of white wine.  I stepped onto the screened in porch and began to read and munch.  I felt better almost all at once.

The Jasmine Room

The Jasmine Room

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Living Room

Living Room

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After getting some much needed food into my stomach I began my explorations.  The White Swan is a circa 1884 Queen Anne house.  It’s very homey and has a pleasant lived-in quality well suited to an inn.  After I finished taking pictures, I freshened up and walked across the street to enjoy Cotton Patch Gospel.

Howmet Playhouse

Howmet Playhouse

And enjoy it, I did.  In fact, you can read the review right here.

After the show, I returned to the inn and darn near collapsed into bed and didn’t wake until the next day.

***

When I awoke today, I was ravenous and ready for a rousing meal.  Cathy served up a dish of mixed fruit and cream, a vegetable quiche, homemade sausage, and orange juice.  With my stomach full, I was ready to begin exploring the area.

Mixed fruit and cream

Mixed fruit and cream

Vegetable quiche and homemade sausage

Vegetable quiche and homemade sausage

My first stop of the day was at the Country Dairy.  This family owned dairy farm has been in the Van Gunst family for 5 generations and it credits their great dairy products to their happy cows.  No, that isn’t a joke.  The Van Gunsts take pride that their 1,400 head of cattle have great lives.  Their lives consist of milking, birthing, sleeping, and eating 100 pounds of food a day which is the secret to great milk.

The Country Dairy

The Country Dairy

Happy cows happily eating lunch to produce happy milk

Happy cows happily eating lunch to produce happy milk

It was a very interesting tour as I watched how milk goes from the cow to the carton, went into a cheese locker, visited a bovine maternity ward, and saw a group of newborn calves (even petted a few).  I even learned about the value of good breeding.  The number one rated polled Hereford was born at Country Dairy and he and another cow sold for a combined $1.2 million dollars.

Inside the calf barn

Inside the calf barn

When the tour ended, we were treated to free samples of cheddar cheese (the best I’ve ever tasted) and chocolate milk.  This milk is farm fresh which means no fat has been skimmed from it.  Whole milk has got nothing on farm fresh milk.  This moo juice was so tasty and rich that I actually bought a pint for myself.

The dairy also boasts a small restaurant which feeds more people than any other eatery in the region.  Trucks come three times a week to restock the food items not produced by the dairy itself.

After my tour, I drove around a bit to see what there was to see.  After viewing a few sights, I returned to the inn and took a long walk around the area and stopped to enjoy a vanilla shake at Dairy Treat (supplied by Country Dairy products).  I then returned to my room to relax for a little bit.

I had intended to attend worship services at St James Catholic Church, but my travel woes returned when Mapquest epically failed me.  The directions I got brought me to downtown Muskegon where I found no church.  I went to a nearby hotel where the desk clerk informed me that the church was actually in Montague.  Another clerk informed me there was another church three blocks up the road.  I dashed off to it, but found they did not hold Saturday night services.

I returned to the White Swan and found that St James was a mere two miles from the inn.  I could have walked there and back several times in the time I spent driving to and from Muskegon.  Thankfully, they have an 8:30am service tomorrow so I can worship in the morning, have breakfast, and hit the road.

I decided to go Montague and have dinner at the Old Channel Inn.  This restaurant is very popular and was jammed to capacity when I arrived.  After a short wait, I was led to a table when I decided to have the charbroiled Alaskan salmon with a side of Creole corn and salad.  Now I was wearing a suit which is crucial to the story.

Old Channel Inn

Old Channel Inn

I took off my coat so I could prepare a salad for myself.  When I returned to my table, I said grace and started eating.  A few minutes later a gentleman came over to my table and said, “I have an embarrassing question to ask you.  Are you a priest?”

“No,” I replied, somewhat baffled.

“I’ll tell you why I asked that in a moment,” said the man as he walked away.

He returned a few minutes later and said, “You’re probably wondering why I asked if you were a priest.”

“Was it because you saw me praying?”

“No.  I’m the owner of this place and there was a woman who saw you, asked for me and said, ‘I saw that young man cross himself.  I think he’s a priest and I want to buy his meal.”

A gentle poke would have felled me at that point.  This is where my suit comes into play.  I was wearing a black dress shirt under my sport coat and my arms would have been blocking my yellow tie while I prayed.  The generous stranger mistook my dress shirt for clerical garb.

I don’t even know what this mysterious woman looks like, but I’d certainly like to thank her for paying for my supper.  It made the rough day I’d had yesterday and my travel woes today vanish in the breeze.

I returned to the White Swan to sip a 7-Up while I wrote this story.  Now it’s about time to hit the hay before I hit the road tomorrow.

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.