COTTON PATCH GOSPEL
Story by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, Music and Lyrics by Harry Chapin
Director- B. J. Cleveland
Music Director- Mark Mullino
Set Design- Sydnee Mowery
Lighting Design- Mark C. Guerra
Costume Design- Bruce Richard Coleman
Properties Master- Monika Zimmermann
Stage Manager- Sally Soldo
Ensemble: Justin Duncan, Sonny Franks, Johnny Lee, Julie Mayer, Abigail Palmgren, Dennis Langevin
Reviewed Performance: 9/5/2015
Reviewed by Sten-Erik Armitage, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When the opportunity came up for me to review Theatre Too’s rendition of the Cotton Patch Gospel, I jumped at the chance. This is one of those versatile scripts that lends itself to any number of creative decisions; from staging, set design, to even casting. This script has often been done as a one man show with a passive (yet talented) quartet on the stage for the musical numbers. Knowing the creative constraints of the venue, I was excited to see what B. J. Cleveland would do with this production.
Allow me to briefly set the stage for this review in the event you are not familiar with this play. It is based on a modern contextualization of the gospels of Matthew and John by Clarence Jordan. Rather than being born over 2,000 years ago, this rendition changes the setting to 21st century Georgia. Although some obvious changes are made to the gospel accounts for the purpose of this recontextualization, this is not a script that makes a mockery of the gospels. If you can handle Jesus being born in apple crate in Gainesville rather than a manger in Bethlehem, you should be just fine. Those little twists provide for much of the comic relief in what is otherwise (understandably so) a very intense narrative.
If you have not yet experienced the “under-theatre” of Theatre 3 in Dallas, I commend it to you. To say Theatre Too is an intimate venue would be an understatement. Three tiered rows of seating ending on the floor puts you right in the action. You could easily reach out and touch the performers; and often, the performers reach out and touch you! On a traditional proscenium, the subtle nuances of an actor’s characterization can often be washed out by lights and distance. Not so at Theatre Too. You are right there, a passive spectator to the scene. When in the hands of a talented company, this can yield spectacular results. I am so pleased to say the cast of this production delivered powerfully.
Before we turn our eyes to the men and women on stage, let’s first take a look at the stage itself. This production marks Syndee Mowery’s first as a designer with Theatre Three. In the playbill, she thanked “the staff at Theatre Three for taking a chance on this young professional.” As an objective outsider, I’m confident this wasn’t a gamble. Mowery’s set was the paragon of beauty through simplicity. By utilizing and repurposing what appeared to be standard pallets, she created a rustic, multipurpose look which created the ideal backdrop for this fast moving story. Subtle paint and stain choices, combined with a wall of instruments, created a powerful aesthetic that had both my wife and I talking about the set the moment we sat down. As a musician, it initially troubled me to see all the stringed instruments hanging on the wall strings-in, but having the beautifully finished maple, rosewood, and poplar backsides of the instruments exposed to the audience served to make Mowery’s design really pop. Well done. All too often a poorly conceived set can distract from the evening’s performance. Mowery’s design became the world in which our characters lived.
Another silent performer in any production is the lighting. Mark C. Guerra had a challenge before him. Providing distinct lighting for eight performers throughout the night in such a small venue with such proximity to the audience is no easy task. With a couple of small exceptions, the lighting achieved the goal of being effectively invisible, perfectly illuminating the action. During the musical number It Isn’t Easy, stage left was illuminated primarily in green. As stage left was unoccupied for a good portion of the number, I’m wondering if that may have been a mistake at the board. The unfortunate result was that when one of the cast members made his move down left, he was in this sickly green cast—a color you seldom want to use on flesh tones. It was distracting and didn't fit the mood of the piece. There were a couple of other moments where a moment of narration from a member of the ensemble was unlit, but due to the excellent lighting throughout the rest of the evening, my assumption was an opening night glitch either in blocking or at the lighting board. Either way, the lighting as a whole was on point and well done. One place where Guerra’s creativity shone through was during the execution scene of Jesus. I won’t go into detail here as to not spoil the moment; suffice it to say Guerra was able to convey the brutal poignancy of the act through the tools of his trade.
Thanks to the legendary skill of Harry Chapin, the real star of this show should be the music. It has been said that Chapin viewed his work for the Cotton Patch Gospel as being his magnum opus. Tragically, his fatal automobile accident occurred before he could ever see the show performed live. As said earlier, this work is often done as a one-man show backed by a talented group of musicians. The reason for this is the challenge in finding musicians of a high-enough caliber to handle Chapin’s score who are also actors capable of breathing life into such a beautifully nuanced script. Mark Mullino as music director was given a great gift in this talented cast—every single member a talented vocalist, and the majority top-notch instrumentalists as well! This show was a delight. To sit up-close and personal with these men and women creating magic on the stage with their voices and instruments was a privilege. Due to the obvious talent of this cast, Mullino had his work cut out for him. When every single member is a soloist by right and talent, molding them into a tight harmony creating machine is no easy task. Thankfully, a task he was obviously ready to take on. Seven of the eight cast members had substantial solos throughout the evening, yet the real magic happened during the ensemble pieces.
Right out of the gate I knew we were in for a good night. From the first note of Something’s Brewing in Gainesville, the energy of these musicians captured the room. Despite the minor audio challenge inherent in this venue of not being able to clearly hear all of the vocals over the instrumentation, my wife and I were instantly pulled in. Seeing and hearing this incredibly talented cast all join together during the opening number set the bar high for the evening. A highlight of the number was the verse done acapella. It served as a solid indicator that these men and women would not let us down all night long. Very well done.
I’m going on record to state this production of Cotton Patch Gospel may be the best you’ll ever have the opportunity to see. Why? This cast has done what very few can do. Every member of the ensemble was integrated into the narrative playing any number of characters to support Joey Folsom as Jesus. Having the ensemble function as the narrative voice and supporting cast was a brilliant decision by director B. J. Cleveland. I was impressed by how Cleveland utilized smooth blocking to transform various members of the ensemble from musician in the background to character in the foreground. I was equally impressed by how adept these performers were as they inhabited the characters slipping in and out of the narrative.
Sonny Franks provided some of the best moments of the night. As a banjo plucking, guitar strumming ensemble member, he carried more than his own weight. From his comedic moment as a cattle farmer who heard from an angel to his soul-chilling performance as the hateful and murderous Governor Herod, Franks brought it. As a musician, he was on-point throughout the night on both banjo and guitar. As a character actor, he was charismatic and compelling with an impeccable sense of comic timing. I would pay to watch Franks read the phone book. Simply amazing.
Johnny Lee entered in and out of a handful of different characters, but was most striking as Rock, a.k.a. Peter. He captured the impulsive, desperately faithful, yet earnestly flawed disciple each time he portrayed Rock. His vocals as an ensemble member and as a soloist were flawless. Hearing him sing “Love the Lord your God…” along with Folsom in an alternative melody to the rest of the ensemble during Jubilation was poignant and evocative. More than just a vocal, I believed him and Folsom as Rock and Jesus during those moments. They conveyed the closeness of the relationship and the power of the message each time they sang together.
Another powerful vocal performance came from Abigail Palmgren during I Did It/Mama Is Here. Sonny Franks and the ensemble became the embodiment of hate and evil as they sung about the dirty deeds done to protect the position and legacy of Governor Herod. Palmgren portrayed a mother who was in denial over losing her child to Herod’s senseless violence. Hearing her heart-wrenching rendition of Mama Is Here in stark contrast to Herod and his cronies vitriolic I Did It was the most powerful moment of the night. Palmgren conveyed emotively and vocally the hollow emptiness of this mother’s confusion and pain. When the duet was done, it was met with silence. Somehow, the audience seemed to sense applause would disrupt the sacred beauty of what we had just seen and heard.
Toward the end of the night we had another emotionally charged duet brought to us by Justin Duncan as Joe and Julie Mayer as Mary as they sang You Are Still My Boy to the son who grew up and grew away. Despite some occasional sharpness from Mayer toward the end of the duet, the two delivered. These weren't just members of the ensemble; I could feel their affection and sense of loss as they watched their boy grow up in a way they never could have imagined.
There was one member of the ensemble who rarely stepped away from his instrument and into the action, but there was good reason for that. Dennis Langevin on bass was the musical anchor for the evening. If there were any doubt about the musicianship of this talented performer, it was put to rest during the first song of the second half, Are We Ready?. Langevin and his double bass moved from his normal home upstage to down and center. He brought the blues into bluegrass as he slapped that bass, inciting spontaneous applause from the appreciative audience. The night without Langevin on the bass would have been hollow and empty. His skill as a percussionist and bassist provided the musical foundation upon which the rest of the ensemble could build.
Willy Welch as Matthew served as the primary narrator for the night. His voice and demeanor were perfect for walking us through the fast paced life and times of Jesus. A strong guitarist with clear vocals, Welch was a pleasure to listen to throughout the night. That said, Welch seemed to be struggling with his lines. From the occasional missed cue to stepping on another performer’s line, there were some rough moments. Thankfully, his winsomeness and the support of the rest of the cast smoothed these moments over so they did not detract from the show as a whole.
This brings us to Joey Folsom who had the daunting task of portraying Jesus. Folsom shone in the confines of Theatre Too. Folsom had moments of great joy, righteous rage, and heartbreaking loneliness and sorrow. Due to his proximity to the audience, I could see the nuances of these emotions being conveyed powerfully through his eyes and physicality. Folsom was not merely acting; he was becoming. In such an intimate space, an actor can’t get away with faking it. Kudos to Folsom for taking a character with such emotive range and carrying it all the way. I did note one minor continuity issue in the characterization of Jesus in this production. For comic effect, Cleveland or Folsom made the decision to occasionally have Jesus enter into a “redneck simpleton” mentality. One scene where this stood out in particular was when Jesus was walking on water. Although this did work for comic effect, it was incongruous to the intensity with which Jesus was portrayed during the sermon on Stone Mountain and his righteous anger in Georgia. We were shown two different versions of Jesus here, not two different aspects of the same Jesus. Apart from that discontinuity (and even within it), Folsom was a force to be reckoned with on stage.
Bottom line, you will be doing yourself, your family, and your friends a disservice if you do not take as many people as possible to see Cotton Patch Gospel at Theatre Three. This company under the direction of B. J. Cleveland did a masterful job with a challenging score and script. This may well be the best show I’ll see in 2015. Time will only tell; but time is running out. Don’t let this show pass you by!
Shows are Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays–Saturdays at 8:00pm; Sundays at 2:30pm. Performed at Theatre Too (T3’s downstairs studio theatre), Theatre Three Dallas / 2800 Routh Street, Ste #168, Dallas
TICKETS: Single tickets starting at $35 are on sale: online at www.Theatre3Dallas.com by phone at 214.871.3300, option #1 in person at the Theatre Three Box Office. $3 off: seniors; $3 off each ticket for groups of 10 or more. Half price student tickets available (valid ID required). Half price military tickets (valid ID required)