Jesus is hot! Just a few months after the Alliance Theatre recast Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar through the prism of contemporary gospel music, Theatrical Outfit’s Tom Key oversees the second coming of Cotton Patch Gospel.
Cotton Patch Gospel has been a local theater mainstay for decades. The bluegrass treatment of the New Testament premiered in 1981 with the book co-written by Key and Russell Treyz, and music and lyrics by Harry Chapin. For years, Key has played the show’s narrator, who not only recounts the story but acts out the vast majority of the parts. For the new version, co-produced by Theatrical Outfit and Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Key passes the lead to an actor of a younger generation, Daniel Thomas May. A busy Atlanta actor, May rarely performs in musicals but he meets the demands of Cotton Patch Gospel’s songs and shepherds the show to fresh heights at the Roswell playhouse.
The pleasingly simple premise transfers the Jesus story from the Holy Land to mid-20th-century Georgia. Key and Treyz based the play on Clarence Jordan’s The Cotton Patch versions of Matthew and John. The stories were contemporary upon their publication in the 1960s, but now take place in an iconic version of the South, where Governor Herod, his thumbs hooked in his suspenders, faintly evokes Boss Hogg of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” At times May overplays some of the show’s more exaggerated old-timers, but overall he deftly switches from blood-and-thunder preacher to good-ol'-boy apostle to ingratiating storyteller.
The script milks the incongruous humor of the Nativity taking place in a trailer in Gainesville and replacing Bible verses with Southernisms. Jesus feeds the multitude with “five boxes of Nabiscos and two cans of sardines,” and turns away Satan’s temptations with the admonition, “Man does not live by grits alone.” Valdosta turns out to be his hometown — “And he shall be called a Valdostan” — and Jerusalem finds a substitute in Atlanta, where Jesus attacks the finance committee of a mega-church.
Cotton Patch Gospel would be a thin bowl of grits if all it offered was a kitschy Dixie spin on the Passion of the Christ. Instead, the show's ingenious, almost subversive quality is the way it relocates Jesus’ story to the Bible Belt. Where Jesus Christ Superstar focused on the tension between the sacred and the secular, questioning the implications of Jesus’ divinity, Cotton Patch essentially pits Christ against the Christian establishment (neatly avoiding that old argument about Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion). The frequent humor serves to lower the audience’s defenses so the play’s contemporary relevance can hit home. It helps that Cotton Patch emphasizes inarguable messages such as the Golden Rule and avoids more problematic dogma. Jesus’ eventual lynching puts the legacy of Southern hate crimes in sharp relief.
When the Klan bombs a church to kill the infant Jesus, Krystal L. Washington sings a clear but reined-in version of “Mama Is Here.” It feels like a missed opportunity for a song that should be a tear-jerker. Bassist Ryan Richardson sings “Jud” (about Judas) with the accusatory starkness of a Ralph Stanley song. Primarily, though, the show emphasizes infectiously cheerful bluegrass tunes, and the band (including Scott DePoy on fiddle, Buck Peacock on guitar, and Rick Taylor on banjo) clearly relishes Chapin’s lively melodies and sunny lyrics, particularly “Jubilation” and “Well I Wonder.”
Without having a wide range, May’s singing voice reveals sweet phrasing and abundant enthusiasm. In the lullaby-like “Love the Lord Your God,” he almost sounds like a choirboy stealing a Sunday service with his first solo. He compensates for any vocal limitations with his exuberance and dashing physicality, whether he’s leaping atop a table or clicking his heels together at the end of the show. Key’s Cotton Patch is in good hands.