“Man cannot live by grits alone.”
The Bible may not say that, but the “Cotton Patch Gospel” does.
Va. Repertory Theatre’s current Hanover Tavern production retells the New Testament, setting the events in the contemporary American South.
So that means, yes, Jesus in Georgia. It works, thanks to its big heart and genuine desire to educate about scripture. This show is much more reverent than, for example, “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The book is by Tom Key and Russell Treyz. Harry Chapin (yes, Harry “Cat’s in the Cradle” Chapin) wrote the music and lyrics. It’s adapted from “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John” by Clarence Jordan, one of the founders of Habitat for Humanity.
A group of six men takes on multiple roles: Christopher M. Stewart, Lucas Hall, H. Drew Perkins, Brian Sulser (a Mechanicsville resident, by the way), Eric Williams, and Corey Wells.
They’re well suited for the show’s casual, folksy nature, which involves some friendly fourth-wall breakage. As musicians, they’re all superb.
Among 19 songs in all, titles include: “Turn It Around,” “Miracle on Stone Mountain,” “We’re Gonna Love It While It Lasts,” and “Thank God for Governor Pilate.”
Tones range from fun to somber, which is appropriate, as we’re progressing from Christmas through Easter, essentially. No weak links are present.
Stewart portrays Jesus, among other roles, and he succeeds in exuding a calm, soothing nature. He gives the part the proper reverence and avoids offending.
Perkins and Williams, in particular, anchor the play with their solid stage presence. The two have shared the Tavern stage before, in Barksdale’s “Smoke on the Mountain” trilogy a few years back. That comfort and confidence shines through, and the whole show benefits.
Perkins also serves as musical director—and quite a successful one, from the sound of things.
Incidentally, if you enjoyed the “Smoke on the Mountain” shows, “Cotton Patch Gospel” will be right up your alley.
The overall production, directed by Chase Kniffen, has a Sunday School feel to it, and it’s a fine way to expose children to Bible stories. Many are worked into the script, such as Jesus resisting temptation from the devil and walking on water. A modern flair makes them all accessible.
Folks who are already well versed in scripture can enjoy a clever reinterpretation. The modernization comes across as all in good fun.
The second act slows down a bit, but it needs to. You can’t rush through Easter.
All in all, the show hits its mark—a good-natured, entertaining take on the Gospels of Matthew and John.
“Cotton Patch Gospel” is Va. Rep’s entry in Richmond’s 2013 Acts of Faith Festival.
The theater will host an Acts of Faith talkback after the Sunday, Feb. 10 matinee. Tim Bowring, executive director of Hanover Habitat for Humanity, is scheduled to participate.
“Cotton Patch Gospel” runs through April 28 at the Hanover Tavern. For box office information, call (804) 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.