A Story Of Jesus Set In The South

Posted: December 03, 1987

"Let's all go on down to Gainesville" urges the opening song of Cotton Patch Gospel, for in that Georgia town something big has happened - a boy named Jesus has been born to a virgin named Mary.

No, this isn't the second coming of Christ; it is the story of the first retold in a grits-and-cornpone context with a Jesus who calls his Heavenly Father "Daddy" and whose chief disciple is a fellow named Rock, who is recruited while bass fishing.

Those big doings in Georgia translate into a small, somewhat fatuous but likable musical, and in the Walnut Street Theater Company's zesty, very well- performed production, which opened last night, it can be liked a great deal indeed.

Anyone contemplating going to this musical for religious inspiration should be warned right off that the story of Jesus, as it is related in the Gospels of Matthew and John, is put into its modern context with the frank objective of entertaining.

The writers of the book on which the play is based, Tom Key and Russell Treyz, don't really trivialize the Gospels, but they certainly aren't afraid of using the incidents related therein for their own worldly purposes.

The Gospels are followed quite closely and frequently too literally to be credible in any modern context. For instance, Gov. Herod hears about the birth of the infant Jesus and sees Him as a threat (he expects to get elected for the next 30 years, no doubt) but he can't lay his hands on the child because an angel (yep, there are angels in Georgia, too) warns Joseph and Mary, and they flee to Mexico.

Later, Jesus instructs a gathering of Baptist preachers; he goes into the men's room at a wedding reception to make wine; he turns two cans of sardines and a box of Nabisco crackers into a feast for a multitude. At the climax, he goes to a convention of the Bring Back the Bible Society in Atlanta, where other evangelists, jealous of his achievements, dress as Klansmen and lynch him. He also gets on the covers of Time and Newsweek and appears on TV talk shows.

It's all pretty obvious and pointless and, for the most part, only mildly amusing. The best part of this show is its expressive music and lyrics by folk singer Harry Chapin.

Chapin wrote the music and lyrics for Cotton Patch Gospel shortly before his death in a traffic accident in 1981. For those familar with such Chapin songs as "Taxi" and "Cat's In the Cradle," the undisguised country flavor of much of the music in this show will come as a surprise.

Chapin has written some foot-stompin', guitar-riffin' tunes, but he also has written tender, lovely ballads, which probably would have entered his repertoire had he lived longer. "You Are My Boy," a lament by Joseph and Mary for their son who has grown up and left them to preach, is particularly moving and "Chapinish."

The cast consists of five men. Four are primarily musicians and singers, with Gordon Paddison, who also sings, taking on most of the acting burden. With his openly honest, slightly hayseedish visage and Jimmy Carter smile, Paddison looks the part of this down-home savior. Under Andrew Lichtenberg's sure direction, Paddison acts with skill and energy. He takes many roles besides Jesus and does them all well.

The other cast members - Peter Taney, John S. Lionarons, Scott Wakefield and Gregory Linus Weiss - are an interesting mix of physical types and singing styles. They are fine performers, both individually and as a band and chorus. Together with Paddison, they are a smooth, highly agreeable ensemble.

COTTON PATCH GOSPEL

Music and lyrics by Harry Chapin, book by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, based on ''Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John" by Dr. Clarence Jordan, directed by Andrew Lichtenberg, settings and lighting by Anthony Cywinski. Presented by the Walnut Street Theater Company at Studio 5 at the Walnut Street Theater, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Ends Dec. 27.

Cast members: John S. Lionarons, Gordon Paddison, Peter Taney, Scott Wakefield, Gregory Linus Weiss.

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