Great Local Shows - Theatrical Reviews
||Cotton Patch Gospel
||Sutter Street Theatre
|Date(s) of show
||March 22 - April 14, 2013
||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
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.