Outside felt more like a rainy night in Georgia. Inside, Jesus was in the process of being born, living his short life, preaching, getting condemned and strung up and coming back to life, all to the twang of bluegrass strings and three-part harmony in 1 hour and 58 minutes.
"Cotton Patch Gospel," which opened Wednesday at the Playhouse Downtown, bills itself as "The Greatest Story Ever Retold," and the retelling as staged by the Flat Rock Playhouse is a high-spirited and well-crafted piece of musical theater that won enthusiastic amens from the audience.
Starring Bill Altman, the versatile pit chief of many Flat Rock musicals, Chris Blisset, James Scheider, Sam Sherwood and Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, "Cotton Patch Gospel" does the seemingly impossible: It updates the gospel story as told in Matthew and John through a Jesus born to Mary and Joe Davidson in Gainesville, Ga.
The cast keeps the show moving with great energy and musical versatility, switching from guitar to bass to keyboards to mandolin with alacrity.
"Somethin's Brewin' in Gainesville" — "a helluva place to be heaven-sent" — kicks off the show, and from there is seldom a dry spell through to the resurrection.
Playing a variety of roles, Scheider and Sherwood make for a great singing and dancing duo. As Jesus, Waterbury-Tieman is well-suited, a bit slighter of stature, humble, yet righteous when provoked. And there's plenty of provocation, from the hypocrisy of the megachurch evangelists to the self-promotion of "Gov. Pilate."
There's a little modernization and a Southern twist to just about all the familiar scenes in the play, written by Tom Key and Russell Treyz with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin.
The baby Jesus gets gifts of a "gold American Express card," a candle that spells like fresh peaches and a bottle of Jade East.
When Joe and Mary are getting ready to leave the annual Sunday School Teachers Convention, Jesus is nowhere to be found; he's off teaching the elders about the Bible. As a grownup, he has no job and no girlfriend. "Ain't got time to worry about the little things in life, when you're supposed to be a-savin' the world."
Jesus fasts for 40 days, and a disciple offers him food. "Man does not live by grits alone," he says.
The disciples are all there, Americanized and nominally truncated — Tom, Phil, Simon the Rebel, Jud and so on.
"Cotton Patch" makes the Gospel we know funny but also meaningful and accessible, an achievement that surely the Holy Father himself would smile on with approval. To turn the other cheek becomes an admonition in song to "Turn It Around."
When somebody looks at you in anger
And whomps you on the side of your head
Do you go whack?
Do you hit 'em back
No, don't fight 'em, invite 'em
To whomp the other side instead
In "You Are Still My Boy," Mary and Joe sing about the son that they're bound to lose, a moving and thought-provoking ballad about the human loss that we often ignore.
The only adjustment we'd recommend is an order to the prop department to design a bigger pouch and quiver for Jesus, who seems to have trouble inserting his fiddle into the over-the-shoulder opening and finding the quiver for his bow.
Vincent Marini, who directed, points out in the playbill notes that the intimacy of the downtown space "allows the performers to talk directly to the audience in a way that is simply not possible in larger spaces."
He also notes that "Cotton Patch Gospel" has been staged by every extreme, from one performer doing all the roles to a large ensemble cast in a grand stage modern cantata. Marini chose to cut the middle, with a small, versatile ensemble that seems just right for the story and the intimate downtown space.
If the spirit moves you, make your way downtown to see the show. Once inside, the spirit of "Cotton Patch Gospel" will keep you moving with its heart and joy.
"Cotton Patch Gospel" plays through May at the Playhouse Downtown. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call 828.693.0731 or go to flatrockplayhouse.org.
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