The Greatest Story Ever Retold Closing Theatrical Outfit’s Season

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The beloved musical returns home just when we need its radical hope – now more than ever. Inspired by Clarence Jordan’s provocative The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John and produced and cherished worldwide since its conception in 1981, this soul-rouser with boundless heart sets the story of Jesus in the American South. In downtown Atlanta in 2020, Cotton Patch Gospel promises to raise the roof with joy!
LocationTheatrical Outfit (84 Luckie St NW in the Balzer Theatre at Herren’s in Atlanta, GA  30303)
Dates:  April 22-May 17, 2020
Performance Times:  Wed-Sat at 7:30pm.  Sat-Sun at 2:30pm.
Tickets:  $15-$45.  Tickets may be purchased online at www.theatricaloutfit.org or contact the Box Office at 678-528-1500 between the hours of 10am-6pm Monday-Friday and 90 minutes before showtime.
Cast
Tom Key
Jeff McKerley
Cody Evan Jones
Karen Howell
Chani Maisonet
Candy McLellan
Joel Ishman
JD Myers

Cotton Patchin Time Again: Hannibal, MO & Garth Woodside Mansion

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Garth Woodside Mansion

Today the road has brought me to Hannibal, MO.

I had actually had this journey on my mind for quite a while.  When the opportunity arose to review a professional production of Cotton Patch Gospel, I knew I would be making my way to Hannibal and a visit to Garth Woodside Mansion, owned and operated by John and Julie Rolsen.

It was an absolutely perfect day for a road trip.  The sky was sunny and clear and the temperatures were downright springish.  I had a fairly smooth ride into Hannibal, though Google Maps tried to make me take a left turn at Albuquerque.  I ended up finding the road I needed anyway, so neener neener Google!

The inn is located in a secluded area along a gravel road and is of great historical interest as it has a direct connection to the town’s most famous resident, Samuel Clemens AKA Mark Twain.

The original owners of the inn were John Garth, a successful Hannibal businessman, and his wife, Helen.  The home was built on his farm, Woodside, in the late 1800s.  John and Helen were lifelong friends of Twain who often visited the mansion.  In fact, one of the rooms in the inn is called the Samuel Clemens and Twain actually stayed in the room whenever he visited the Garths.

As I pulled up to the inn, I took a moment to soak in the impressive structure. When you think bed & breakfast, this is the type of building that springs to mind. If the inside was anything like the outside, I knew I was falling into the lap of luxury.  I bumped into another couple on my way to the front door and we were met by Julie Rolsen.  Julie is easily one of the most gregarious innkeepers I have met on my travels and she and her husband have wickedly sharp senses of humor.  If you stay here, read the book on the inn in your room and you’ll agree with me.

After giving us the nickel tour, Julie showed me to the Rosewood, my base of operations for the next few days.  Admittedly, I wanted to stay in the Samuel Clemens to really absorb the inn’s sense of history, but I had been beaten to the punch.  On the other hand, I did get to become a part of a unique piece of inn trivia.

The bed in my room is called the most expensive bed in Missouri.  It’s a hand carved piece of artistry insured for $55K.

After settling in, I did my explorations.  And there is a lot to explore.  Not only is this place one of the most beautiful and luxurious inns I have visited, but it is also one of the largest.  The first floor gives you a sense of history as the furniture is original to the home.  The entire property is remarkably preserved which I attribute to the small number of owners which the property has had.  The Rolsens are only the sixth owners.  Pretty impressive for a 100 plus year old mansion.

I had scheduled a ghost tour for 7pm, so I headed to downtown Hannibal for an early dinner before learning about the haunted history of Hannibal.

I opted to try the Mark Twain Dinette and it was a bit of a mixed bag.  The ambiance is quite nice, but the food was just OK.  I had a Roughin It burger which included pepper jack, chili ranch, and bacon which did fill the cavity.

Afterwards, I explored the main street area.  Though I, to my chagrin, failed to observe them, take a look at the artistic fire hydrants.  They were all painted by Julie.

Downtown Hannibal is pretty compact and most of the interesting sites are all pretty close to one another.  I went down to the Hannibal History Museum and picked up my ticket for the tour.  As the trolley wouldn’t load until 6:50pm, I continued looking around the downtown area and found the Bluff City Theater and City Hall.  Believe it or not, the two buildings are actually connected for my upcoming play review as the theatre is producing the show, but the play is being presented environmentally at City Hall in the council room located on the second floor.

About 6:50, I returned to the museum where I boarded the trolley.  Ghost tours are always an interesting way to learn about a town’s history and Hannibal is reportedly one of the most haunted cities in the country.  The tour consists of traveling to various buildings and hearing about the hauntings and there were some very interesting tales.

One such tale was the story of three boys who disappeared when they went off to explore one of the numerous caves under Hannibal.  In spite of an intense search costing over one million dollars and lasting over a month, the boys were never found as the caves under the town are deep and labyrinthine.

One of the boys reportedly haunts a family, but it is a good haunting.  The ghost is the friend of the family’s little girl, who calls him Shippa.  Our guide showed us a photo of Shippa taken by the little girl on her fake tablet and even I admit that it is a pretty impressive piece of evidence that bears a remarkable similarity to one of the missing boys.

The other tale was a sensitive point in the history of Hannibal.  There was a wealthy businessman named Amos Stillwell who had a younger wife named Fanny who was the belle of the ball.  One winter’s night, Fanny was asleep with her children and her husband came home late from a card party held at the home from his good friend, Captain Munger.  Not wanting to disturb his wife and children, Stillwell retired to his bedroom.

Around midnight, Fanny heard her husband stir in the other room and say, “Fanny?  Is that you?”  At that point a hidden intruder rose out of the darkness and killed Stillwell with a double bladed axe.   Fanny stayed hidden with the children until she was certain the coast was clear, left the children with the maid, and rushed to get their family friend, a doctor, who lived a few blocks away.

The doctor told Fanny he’d be over immediately and that’s when things started getting weird.  Instead of going to the police who were next door to the doctor, Fanny returned home and started cleaning up the gruesome crime scene.  The doctor came over and was shocked at Fanny’s actions and called the police.

The police came with the city physician.  Needless to say, the police were very upset that the crime scene had been tampered with.  Then another strange thing happened.  The city physician refused to let the police question Fanny Stillwell, saying she was too distraught.  This further angered the police as they now had a useless crime scene and a witness whom they couldn’t question.  Even with the help of the Pinkertons, the police were never able to gather much evidence in the mystery.

Nine months later, Fanny married the city physician which was very suspicious and enraged the citizens of Hannibal who literally chased the couple out of town.  The couple would return to visit friends several years later and were arrested for the crime.  However, with the passage of several years, there was even less evidence than before and the city physician was found not guilty and charges against Fanny were dropped.

A book was written about the case and one of the last remaining copies exists at the Hannibal Public Library.  The reason for the book being out of print is that the writer did not get permission from all family members and printing was halted.

Today, it’s reported that the ghost of Amos Stillwell roams the old home of Captain Munger which is now a restaurant known as LaBinnah Bistro.  The reason for this being is that Stillwell spent many happy hours at card parties here and his original home was demolished in the hopes of stopping hauntings there.

Our tour ended in an old Baptist cemetery where we were given dowsing rods to sense paranormal activity.  Allegedly, spirits exude a magnetic field and the rods will be pulled towards it and cross at the point of activity.  Honestly, I did feel the tug and the rods did cross, but dowsing rods also locate water, so while interesting I leave it for the reader to decide if it was science or spirits.

Still, it was a very interesting experience and, as I’ve said, always a good way to learn about local history.

From there it was back to the mansion, where the day’s long drive and activity finally caught up with me.  I drew a bath in the clawfoot tub that was just the perfect temperature, soaked, then curled up in my bed to get a $55K sleep.

I awoke refreshed and hungry.  About 9am, I headed downstairs to breakfast.  John and Julie were clearly born to the B & B business.  Both are natural hosts, chatting with guests and making sure they are provided for.  I sat down to a goblet of Garth Juice.  As John says, “It tastes good and it’s good for you.”  Julie prepared a hot chocolate for me and John also brought me water and milk while I worked through a dish of fruit and a muffin.

The main entrée was a quiche filled with broccoli, cheese, eggs, and ham.  It was a tasty way to start the day and provided needed fuel for a day filled with activities.

I got things going immediately after breakfast with a visit to Mark Twain Cave.

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This name isn’t an attempt to cash in on Twain’s name.  Twain often explored this cave as a boy and he uses this cave in several of his books.  It’s an entertaining and informative little tour, but you may want to bring a jacket as the cave stays at 53 degrees year round.

I really wanted to explore Cameron Cave as well, but the next available tour wasn’t until noon and that tour is 90 minutes and I had an appointment at 1:30.  So, it’s something to look forward to in another visit, especially since you’re provided your own lantern to explore this cave.

From Mark Twain Cave, I headed to the Haunted House on Hill Street.  They were offering a special where for $10 I could tour the house and Karlocks Kars and Pop Culture.  I took them up on the offer.

There isn’t much to the haunted house.  It actually opens with a room filled with 25 intricately sculpted wax figures of Mark Twain, his family, and characters.  Narration is provided giving a history of Mark Twain, his family, and the inspiration for his characters.  Afterwards, you go through a cheesy little haunted house not unlike ones you’d find at a county fair.

Karlocks was a bit more interesting.  It’s a museum filled with vintage cars and sundry pop culture items.  There’s even a bit of a vintage arcade, but playing the games costs quarters.

After my brief tours, I headed over to the Mark Twain Riverboat for a little cruise on the Mississippi.

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The Mark Twain

I took a seat on the top deck outside the pilot house.  Before setting sail, several blasts are made on the whistle and those by the pilot house need to cover your ears.  It was quite a relaxing jaunt as Captain Steve pointed out several points of interests such as Lover’s Leap and Jackson Island which also found its way into the stories of Mark Twain.

During the ride you will actually cross the state line into Illinois and you may just see some wild life.  I saw a couple of alligators silently swimming in the Mississippi and I finally understood just how dangerous they could be as the way they swim do make them seem like sticks or logs.

After a journey on the mighty Mississippi, I returned to Garth Woodside to get cleaned up for church and the show.

I attended services at Holy Family Catholic Church and I would like to clone this church and replicate it for all of my journeys.  This is what worship needs to be like.  Everyone was happy to be there and was ready for Jesus.  You could genuinely feel His presence.  And they were so welcoming.  Father Jim Wheeler asked if there were any visitors and asked us where we were from.  The congregation was so welcoming as I had several brief conversations after church.  Father Jim also gave a great sermon about us needing to be Jesus with skin on which provided a lot of inspiration and food for thought.

Worship certainly prepped me for the faith inspired play, Cotton Patch Gospel, which was being performed at Hannibal City Hall.  It was an interesting and original take on the story and you can read my review here.

After the show, it was back to Garth Woodside and another good night’s sleep.

Somehow the alarm on my clock was turned on and buzzed me up at 6am.  Getting back to sleep wasn’t happening so I wrote my review on the play and got back to work on this article.  I got to this point and went downstairs to breakfast.

OK, I’m back.  Today’s meal consisted of Garth juice, milk, fruit, peach muffin, and breakfast pizza which consisted of egg whites, bacon, sausage, and a pita or sourdough crust.  Julie also made me a mug of English Toffee hot chocolate topped with crushed Heath bits because chocolate makes everything better.

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Breakfast pizza

I ended up having a lively little conversation with the Rolsen family before returning to my room to finish the article and dilly dally until checkout time at Julie’s insistence.  😉

And that about wraps it up for this edition.  If you’re in the Hannibal area, get a room at Garth Woodside Mansion.  It’s a wonderful inn hosted by great people in a private locale and the food is fantastic.

Until the next time, happy travels.

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.

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, Day 1: Sanctuary

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The Woodward

Hello, dear readers, it’s nice to see you again.  I’m so glad you are able to join me for one of my biggest projects to date.

For my regular readers, you may remember that over the summer I visited the town of Whitehall, MI so I could review the play Cotton Patch Gospel at the Howmet Playhouse.  Due to the success of that review, I pursued an opportunity with the Repertory Company Theatre of Richardson, TX which offered me a free ticket to review its production of that show.  So I found myself on a frosty February morning heading down south to enjoy a worshipful play and escape from Old Man Winter’s grip on Omaha.

Continuing the weather trend from my escapades in Iowa over the holiday season, Omaha was hammered by a winter storm the day before I was set to leave for Texas.  Thankfully, this time I did not have to drive in it and the road crews had a chance to clean things up pretty well before I went on my way.

One of the more enjoyable things about this drive was that I was finally seeing some new scenery.  There are two main interstates out of the city (I-29 and I-80) that I normally have to take whenever I begin these excursions.  This time, I got to take Hwy 75 pretty much straight to my first stop in Topeka, KS.

It was very peaceful to travel through the smaller towns of Nebraska and enjoy traditional Americana.  I also considered it to be a fast forward view to spring as I watched winter’s clutch on the state weaken the further south I got.  By the time I reached the Nebraska City area, the snow was a mere dusting and by the time I reached Auburn it was gone, though the weather was still quite cold.

The first leg of the drive seemed to go faster than normal as I admired the countryside and listened to the tunes of my MP3.  Before I knew it I had arrived in Kansas’ capital city.

My first stop was at the Woodward Inns at Fillmore which is a hop, skip, and jump from the capitol building.  The Woodward is far more than a B & B.  It’s a little village of its own consisting of one gothic mansion, three stately executive inns, and three family inns with an eighth property set to open later this year that will be a luxury extended stay.

I was staying in the main inn, a Tudor mansion built in 1923 for Chester Woodward who wanted his final estate to be as authentically English as possible.  It is an impressive abode which boasts charmingly gothic rooms and a 2 ½ story library modeled after the King Henry VIII library found at London’s Hampton Hall.  It also features a year round lap pool heated to 90 degrees, though it was closed for cleaning due to a recent storm.

The mansion was bought by Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress) in 1994 who had built a successful lobbying firm in the Topeka area.  Hearing the call of God to take care of others, she gave up her lobbying career to enter the hospitality field and begin building the empire of the Woodward.

Elizabeth was a most gracious host.  She is extremely knowledgeable about the Topeka area and is a fascinating conversationalist.  She gave me a tour of the mansion and offered to show me some of the other properties after breakfast the next morning.  After exploring the main inn, Elizabeth led me to the Master, my home for the night.

This room was almost too much room for one person.  The room boasts a large 4 poster bed with a fireplace (put to good use on this chilly night and morning) and sitting room.  After getting my stuff settled, my thoughts turned to dinner.

Elizabeth had suggested an eatery run by a friend of hers called the Blind Tiger Brewery and recognized for world championship caliber beers.  The building is quite unique.  I didn’t notice it from the outside, but once I got indoors, the place reminded me of a 3-D puzzle due to its construction and branching hallways.  It would be rather easy to get lost in this place.

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Blind Tiger Brewery

For my dinner, I did a rarity and sampled some of the beers due to its championship reputation.  I had samples of brown ale, Munich Dunkles, pale ale, and raw wheat.  I enjoyed the brown ale and the raw wheat the most.  For my entrée, I enjoyed the Texas Roadrunner which was a grilled chicken breast topped with beef brisket, cheeses, and peppers served on a bed of rice and steak fries.

The Blind Tiger Brewery apparently has a haunted history as Elizabeth suggested I ask about the ghost tour which I did, but there wasn’t anybody there who knew enough about the history to tell me the story.  So I returned to the mansion, organized some photos, set up the artificial fire for the night and hit the hay.

I awoke the next morning feeling ravenous.  I headed to the dining room where I found goblets of water and black cherry/cranberry juice waiting for me.  I sipped the glass of juice and found the fusion of the two fruits worked very well.

Within a few moments, Elizabeth brought me my breakfast which was an oven baked pancake with orange maple syrup, cream, blueberries, and bananas.  I managed to eat the fruit, but only made it halfway through the pancake before I felt full.

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Oven baked pancake with fruit and black cherry/cranberry juice

After breakfast, Elizabeth had her associate, Sarah, show me around her new properties called the Woodward Row Houses.  These will be luxury extended stay rooms and they look very nice.  My favorite was the basement studio apartment which is one of the nicest apartments I have ever seen.

Alas, it seemed my time came to an end too soon.  Currently I am putting the finishing touches on this article before beginning the next leg of my journey which will bring me to Norman, OK.

But if you are in the Topeka area, take some time to visit one of the many rooms of the Woodward.  You will find rooms suited to all tastes on the financial spectrum and one amazing innkeeper in Elizabeth Taylor.

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.