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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Gospel’ Runs Roughshod in Cotton Patch

San Diego County Arts Writer

Like a rollicking John Deere tractor in overdrive, the country musical “Cotton Patch Gospel” plows its turf with humor and religious fervor.

The show, which opened Friday at Lamb’s Players Theatre, has the spirited tone of an old-fashioned camp meeting, leavened with comedy. But theatrically, neither the book nor Lamb’s production offers characterizations deeper than stereotypes.

Three actors gloss over a handful of roles apiece, generally Christ’s often-baffled disciples in the guise of modern, countrified story tellers, recalling the story of his birth, ministry, passion and Resurrection.

The musical’s authors based it on “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John,” developed for a Christian community of poor, rural Georgians in the 1950s by Clarence Jordan, a Southern pastor and Greek scholar.

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Just as stage directors sometimes set a Mozart opera in the 1930s or a Shakespeare play in present-day, Jordan sought to overcome the distance of 2,000 years and the incrustation of reverence built up around the story of Christ to give it immediacy for his countrified parishioners.

“Spitball me Lord, across the home plate of life,” croon the show’s bumptious ensemble of three actors, impersonating a gospel music troupe on its way to Nashville in an ironic treatment of the story of the good Samaritan.

The gospel group, ensconced in its fancy bus, is too busy to aid a beaten insurance salesman by the side of the interstate. The leader of a major Southern denomination in his limousine is also otherwise occupied. A black truck driver finally pulls over and cares for the suffering salesman.

Jesus, the illegitimate son of “Joe and Mary,” a gal from Clayton, Ga., is born behind the Dixie Delight Motor Lodge in an apple crate. Herod, the governor of Georgia, had summoned the parents to Atlanta for an income-tax audit.

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Along with the humor--Jesus feeds a multitude of 5,000 on Stone Mountain, Ga., with five boxes of Ritz crackers and two cans of sardines--is the Gospel’s serious message--Jesus (Steve Multer) earnestly delivering the beatitudes or, later, plaintively begging: “Daddy, if there’s any way out of what’s comin’, I want you to let me know.”

Multer, Michael Gier and Kenneth Wagner, backed by a solid quartet of fiddle, banjo, guitar and string bass, cut upon Lamb’s snug arena stage. “Cotton Patch,” with Harry Chapin’s down-home music and lyrics and a book by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, has a plain-folks, back-porch feel to it. And a wry sense of humor, common to good ol’ boys spinning yarns.

The three actors, who sing Chapin’s hummable music in a straightforward manner do some serious clogging to songs like “Goin’ to Atlanta” or “Somethin’s Brewin’ in Gainesville.”

Scenic designer Mike Buckley captures a Southern-fried tone by painting a Confederate flag on the rough-hewn stage floor. He adds a rural flavor by deftly placing a few props--fishing rods, an old Camel cigarette sign--around the theater.

For all its energy, the show doesn’t go far enough. Director Deborah Gilmour Smyth has staged the play so that it works for viewers on all four sides. She sets a ripping pace that rarely sags, but Smyth hasn’t demanded that her actors dig into their characters for more than a quick impersonation.

Gier does a fine turn as a hypocritical fundamentalist preacher, but it’s just an outline. Granted there’s not much in the script to work from.

The choicest parts go to Kenneth Wagner. But he, too, fails to really do anything with them. His Pontius Pilate, as a harried politician eager to get back to his election campaign--"I could have done without all of this mess"--is very funny, but Wagner does not make him into a memorable little demagogue.

The same applies to Multer’s moments as Jesus. The staging and spotlighting tend to create the sort of haloed figure that the old scholar, Preacher Jordan, wanted to get beyond in the first place. Multer gives Christ humanity but no individuality.

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Similarly, the absence of particularity distances the characters and the plot. It feels like an old tale that’s once removed.

Lamb’s Players, with its rich tradition of strong, physical theater, could be turning out characters that are as fine as long staple cotton. This time they’ve ginned a bale that’s nice looking at a distance, but on closer examination is strictly middling.

“COTTON PATCH GOSPEL”

A musical treatment of the New Testament, with book by Tom Key and Russell Treyz and music and lyrics by Harry Chapin, based on “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John” by Clarence Jordan. Directed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth. Musical director, Keith Nater. Choreography, Pamela Turner. Clogging by Luann Manning. Scenic design, Mike Buckley. Costumes, Veronica Murphy Smith. Lighting, Brett Kelly. Stage manager, Mary Nakawatase, with Michael Gier, Steve Multer and Kenneth Wagner.


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