The Placer Performance Calendar


Great Local Shows - Theatrical Reviews

Title Cotton Patch Gospel
Organization Sutter Street Theatre
Date(s) of show March 22 - April 14, 2013
Reviewer Dick Frantzreb
Review What a delight! Cotton Patch Gospel, subtitled “The Greatest Story Ever Retold” has been offered at various venues in the Sacramento area in recent years, as an offshoot of David MacDonald’s “Best of Broadway” operation. This was my first occasion to see it, and for me it was fun, energizing, and even inspiring from beginning to end.

The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, published in 1968, was written by Clarence Jordan as a retelling of the life of Jesus, as if it had taken place in modern, rural Georgia. The book was put to music by Harry Chapin in 1981 with 17 original songs mostly in a blue grass or country style.

This presentation in the intimacy of Sutter Street Theatre was almost overwhelming. There were two dozen cast members, and they were often on that tiny stage together, singing and dancing. And John Wilder’s live accompaniment on a synthesizer sounded at times like a multi-instrument combo.

I was very impressed by the quality of the singing. There were many numbers with large and small ensembles, singing in harmony and producing a big, excellent sound. And nearly all of the soloists made for equally pleasant listening. Along with the listenable music, there was engaging, lively choreography throughout, and although the set was practically bare, costumes and props helped reinforce the illusion of taking place in modern-day, rural Georgia.

The lyrics and dialog were much of the fun of this show. Biblical details were translated in creative ways: Jerusalem became Atlanta, Bethlehem became Gainesville, “verily, verily” became “sho’ nuf,” Matthew the publican became an IRS agent, and the bread and wine of the Sacrament became a biscuit and jug passed among the disciples. All of this was delivered with such innocence and humor, that I can’t imagine any but the most narrow-minded being offended by it.

Like the music, the quality of the acting was high, and overall, the cast delivered consistent, credible southern accents. (Credible to this northerner, anyway.) The role of Matthew, as the narrator, was carried out beautifully by Sam Williams. For decades in the Sacramento region, Sam has proved himself a complete entertainer, and his personality sparkled in this lead role. And though his acting and singing were outstanding, he had his taps on, and the little bit of tap dancing that he ad libbed was a perfect complement to his part.

Dave MacDonald directed this show, and from his introduction before the first number, I could see that it has been a special project for him. There were 3 MacDonalds in the cast list, but it was clear to me that the “family” feeling went beyond those who shared their name with the director. This production was full of heart and humor, and that’s what connected most with me. Beyond that, I found myself measuring what was being presented against my knowledge of the New Testament, and I often found food for thought, although the story took considerable liberties with the details and sequences of Matthew’s gospel. But the fundamental excellence of this show lies, not so much in any religious message, as in the quality of the writing and music – all brilliantly performed in this production. It’s high-quality entertainment, the kind I would like to see again and again.

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