Hallelujah, It’s Heavenly!!

Keith Patrick McCoy (Front) stars in ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’. Back row (L to R): Isiah Harper, Michelle Justice, Dean Justice, Justin Belew, Jeff Snider

If a man tried to take his time on Earth and prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth, well I wonder what would happen to this world?  Find the answer to this question in Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key and Russell Treyz with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin.  It is currently playing at Springer Opera House.

It’s no secret that this is one of my favorite shows.  This is the fourth time I’ve reviewed a version of this musical and I’m always discovering something new based on the storytelling of each cast.  However, I was particularly looking forward to this version as it would be the first time I would see it performed under its original intentions (one actor playing all the roles and backed by a bluegrass band). 

I was not disappointed.

This is a beautiful show for the Easter season and I salute the cast for an energetic and fun-filled night plus give them further kudos for showing great poise as the weather looked like it was turning a little inclement for this outdoor production.

I’ve always appreciated Key & Treyz’s script for its wonderful worshipfulness and clarity.  They do an excellent job of taking the Gospel of Matthew, modernizing it and making it completely understandable to any and all regardless of one’s faith background. In this take, Jesus is born in Atlanta, raised in Valdosta and lynched for the sins of humanity.  Key and Treyz were able to take the most important points of the Gospel and translate it into a 90 minute show that never feels rushed or edited.

Paul Pierce provides very strong direction as he’s guided his lone actor to an impressive performance with a sure and solid hand.  The animation is constant and there’s nary a static moment in the show.  I was also quite pleased with the staging as it had the feeling of an old-time revival show.

Keith Patrick McCoy expertly handles an awesome burden as he plays everybody.  On a scale of 1 to 10, his energy hovered around 15 and he effortlessly transformed himself into several dozen characters with changes in posture and modulation of his angelic baritone.  Some of his great performances included his rendition of the show’s narrator, Matthew, the former IRS man whose respect and love for Jesus is palpable; his sincere and humble Jesus; the conflicted Jud who betrays the Son of God; a smarmy and hypocritical televangelist hyping faith cruises to the Holy Land and Hong Kong; a malevolent Herod bent on killing Jesus to retain his throne; a surprisingly sinister Pontius Pilate who engineers Jesus’ murder.  Last, but certainly not least, I give a personal standing ovation to McCoy’s interpretation of John the Baptizer as he finally gave me the Baptizer I’ve long wanted to see in the form of a blood and guts, fire and brimstone preacher. 

McCoy’s singing is every bit as good as his acting and it always suited the character singing the song. Favorite performances were his Jesus humorously teaching His followers to treat others the way they would want to be treated in “Turn It Around” and agonizing over His impending death in “Goin’ to Atlanta”.  He also has stellar turns as Herod cold-bloodedly admitting “I Did It” when he has an orphanage bombed in an attempt to kill Jesus and as Matthew explaining the takeover plan he and the Apostles cooked up for Jesus in “We Gotta Get Organized”.

The only critique I had was that I thought McCoy could have taken a beat when he transitioned characters and seemed to rush his lines on a few occasions, but I’m going to qualify that by saying he may have been forced to move a little faster due to the weather. 

McCoy was ably supported by a bluegrass band who serves as a second character in the production.  They play all the instruments, sing the bulk of the songs and sometimes stepped in as minor characters.  Justin Belew and Jeff Snider dazzled on guitar and banjo.  Dean Justice was flawless on the stand up bass and his low tenor voice excelled on the somber “Are We Ready?”  Michelle Justice did some fine fiddling and had a lovely solo in “Mama Is Here”.  Isiah Harper was a strong featured vocalist especially in “Something Brewing in Gainesville” and “You Are Still My Boy”.

Debbie Anderson’s musical direction was right on the money as she understood the nuances of Chapin’s score and correctly emphasized its humor and gravitas where needed.  I loved Matthew Swindell’s less is more set of a simple backdrop, table and boxes.  Katie Underwood’s lights were absolutely phenomenal and bolstered key emotional points especially the blue light on Jesus in “Goin’ to Atlanta” and the red and black of Jesus’ lynching.  Sandy Dawson’s costumes were top notch with McCoy’s dapper brown suit and the plaid shirts and overalls of the band.

So if you’re looking for some family entertainment this Easter season, spend some time in the cotton patch with this wonderful cast and story and find out why Cotton Patch Gospel is “The Greatest Story Ever Retold”.

Cotton Patch Gospel plays at Springer Opera House through April 3.  Remaining live performances are April 2 at 8pm and April 3 at 2:30pm.  Livestream performances will be held April 1-3 at 8pm (EST) and a matinee performance at 2:30pm (EST) on April 3.  Tickets range from $20-$38 and can be obtained by calling the Box Office at 706-327-3688 or visiting www.springeroperahouse.org.  Springer Opera House is located at 103 10th St in Columbus, GA.

Photo provided by Allie Kent

They Give the Gift of Laughter

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Noah Diaz (above), Jonathan Purcell (left), and Bill Grennan (right) star in The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) at the Blue Barn Theatre.

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned Christmas pageant and this is nothing like a good old-fashioned Christmas pageant.  This is The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) by Reed Martin & Austin Tichenor and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Once more, the Blue Barn presents a piece of metafiction as Bill Grennan, Noah Diaz, and Jonathan Purcell play embellished versions of themselves trying to salvage the Annual Holiday Variety Show and Christmas Pageant at St. Everybody’s Non-Denominational Universalist Church after a winter storm prevents all of the show’s acts from appearing.  Martin & Tichenor’s script walks a fine line between inspired genius and haphazard mess.  Martin & Tichenor rely on considerably more improvisation and audience participation than I’ve normally seen in scripts of this type.  In the hands of less capable actors and directors this show could easily fall on its face.  Luckily, this show has the benefit of the strong guiding hand of Randall T. Stevens and his trio of gifted comics to make the most out of this spectacle.

Feigning chaos is difficult.  Mimicking that sense of frustration, desperation, and flat out being lost requires a fine touch and Randall T. Stevens provides that touch with confident, surefire direction.  At no point did I doubt that his actors were not making up stuff off the tops of their heads and his staging is quite crafty as his performers make full use of the theatre as they vainly try to cobble together a watchable show.

Bill Grennan is a raging doofus and a hammy overactor.  Those are indeed compliments.  Grennan presents himself as a somewhat naïve waif who loves everything about Christmas, but is pretty oblivious to the world around him.  Whether he’s singing a racist version of White Christmas which goes over his head because he prefers music to lyrics or letting his cohorts hold an excessively long note because he interrupts a song for a speech, Grennan consistently proves himself to not be the brightest bulb on the tree.

The energy Grennan throws out is unbelievable as he maintains a frenetic pace throughout the show as he races about the theatre and especially when he indulges in scene chewing luxury as King Herod in an English panto about the Nativity.  Grennan also has a great light tenor voice as he leads the audience through a unique version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, a terrific medley of Christmas songs, and a rousing version of Jingle Bells.

Jonathan Purcell plays the stick in the mud of the group.  His exaggerated self is an ultra Christian with a pathological fear of Santa Claus and is quite hypocritical with his constant judging of others, referring to Grennan as a pagan, and growing angry when a holiday greeting other than Merry Christmas is used.

Purcell has comedic timing that simply cannot be taught.  He shines as a very Jewish Mary in the Nativity sequence, is quite a strong percussionist playing bells and xylophone in Jingle Bells, slays in a dual performance with Grennan as the Rat King in a miniature ballet version of The Nutcracker, and does an expert job of seeming like he has several rods shoved up his back at all times.

Noah Diaz brings his own strong comedic chops to bear by interpreting himself as a greedy little slob.  For him, Christmas is all about the getting as he pines for high dollar Christmas gifts, tries to steal gifts from a gift exchange, and cons his two friends out of money by pretending to be collecting for the Salvation Army.  Diaz excels in high energy farce especially in a signature number extolling the virtues of Mrs. Claus as he laments about an overall lack of strong women in Christmas.  Diaz does need to keep his projection up as I lost his lines on a few occasions when he dropped his volume.

I give this show an A+ on the technical side of things.  I absolutely loved Martin Scott Marchitto’s simple set of Christmas tree, gifts, and cutouts of Santa, fireplace, and Nativity.  Carol Wisner’s lighting was festive and always apropos to the moments of the show.  Melissa Penkava Koza’s costumes were perfect and outrageously funny, especially a getup for Grennan when he misinterprets gay apparel complete with Juicy shorts and a, ahem, well placed piece of mistletoe.  Craig Marsh does it again with pitch perfect Christmas sounds that hit the mark for the holiday season.

Some of the improvised jokes fizzled and the audience participation scenes will always hinge on how creative and on the ball that particular crowd is, but this rather zany and irreverent show will provide some deep belly laughs and a truly good time at the Blue Barn this holiday season due to the amazingly talented trio running amok.

The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) plays at the Blue Barn through December 18.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  Additional performances will be held on Dec 7 and 14 at 7:30pm and at 2pm on December 4 and 17-18.  Please note that performances on Dec 2-3, 9-11, 16 and the 6pm show on Dec 17 are sold out.  Ticket prices are $30 for adults $25 for students, seniors (65+), T.A.G. members, or groups of 10 or more.  For reservations call 402-345-1576 from 10am-4pm Mon-Fri or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Parental discretion is advised for this production.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  During intermission, stop and visit the Giving HeART’s Tree in the Blue Barn lobby.  The Blue Barn is partnering with ENOA (Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging) to bring a Merry Christmas to the elderly in eastern Nebraska.  A $20 donation to ENOA will allow you to select an ornament from the Giving HeART’s Tree and your $20 will be used to buy gift cards for the elderly in eastern Nebraska.  For some, it will be the only gift they receive.  Please be generous this holiday season.