There may be 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, but there are a million points of perspective when it comes to Scripture. Whether it's Pentecostal's tongue-speaking freak show or the Unitarian Universalists' come-one-come-all approach, the western story of God and his sacrificial offspring has been reinvented more often than Madonna (the pop star, not the prudish portal for the Son of Man).
Jesus Christ Superstar cast The Big J.C. as a Jerry Garcia-like guru. Godspell imagined Him as a minstrel-cum-circus clown wandering NYC looking for a few good lambs. Pulp Fiction put a soul in a briefcase and the gospel in the mouth of a hit man.
The Cotton Patch Gospel, the musical that opened last Friday at Coronado's Lamb's Players Theatre, sets the biblical narrative to a redneck stereotype. Call it “Vern Goes to Bethlehem.”
Apostles wear mesh trucker hats. Jesus takes cues from the Brawny Man and sports Levis and flannel barn wear. And 1940s Georgia-home to religious fanaticism, racism and a whole bunch of unmentionable other -isms-serves as the Holy Land (if Rome was apt for the first couple of miracles, the rural South should and probably would serve as the landing strip for the Second Coming.)
The musical starts as comedy that culls Southern stereotypes, slows into a ballad-heavy heart-tugger and descends into straight-faced, message-driven psalms for the finale.
And just as Jews checked out before the Bible's second act, theatergoers could do just as well to leave Cotton Patch after intermission.
The seeds for the musical were sewn in the 1940s by Clarence Jordan, a social worker who liberally interpreted the books of the New Testament, setting the tone, speech and specifics within the idiosyncrasies of the South. He called it “The Cottonpatch Version of the Bible.” Performance actor Tom Key turned it into a one-man play in 1981, enlisting composer Harry Chapin (“Cat's in the Cradle”) to score the musical. It would be the last work by Chapin, who died in a car accident before the debut (his brother put the final touches on the 18 songs).
Lamb's Players' associate artistic director, Deborah Gilmour, decided the 100-plus characters involved in the story required three actors. Within a set designed like an abnormally pristine barn, Ryan Drummond, Mark Christopher Lawrence and Rick D. Meads each assume a central identity-Rock, Matthew and Johnny, respectively-but morph into countless roles throughout the performance.
With a Jim Carrey-like talent for physical comedy (which he showcased as “Smudge” in Old Town's production of Forever Plaid), Drummond delivers most of Cotton Patch's best puns. Whether urging audience members to turn off their cell phones in redneckian stupor or playing the devil and introducing himself to Jesus with the Rolling Stones line, “Pleased to meet you,” Drummond embraces his monumental nerd humor to great effect.
Lawrence-a rotund black man with a powerful, gruff voice who's had roles in films like K-Pax and Terminator II-is the most versatile player. His jumps from eyelash-twittering Mary to superficially powerful Pilate to breathless revivalist preacher require little suspension of disbelief.
Together, these two actors carry Gospel's first half, which is an entertaining mix of good, cheap puns, fictional narrative and Chapin's semi-bluegrass country pop (performed onstage by 7th Day Buskers). Yet the strength of their performances exposes the production's weak link-a milquetoast performance by Meads.
As Jesus, a role that occasionally calls for a fussily pious temper, Meads is unconvincing. And in a musical that relies heavily on dance moves and physical comedy, Meads' white man's disease stands out like your father wrestling with uncooperative boogie muscles.
Cotton Patch's other problem is a lack of consistency. The comical tone is set early when it's explained that an extension cord powered Jesus' birth place and the three “scholars” came bearing an American Express card, scented candles and a bottle of Jade East. The songs are entertaining, with lines like, “he's been waiting for a call from the man upstairs, but he lives in a one-story house,” and a phenomenal ballad about politics in which opposing melodies are sung a capella.
Had it ended at intermission, Cotton Patch would've been an entertaining and funny family program along the lines of Forever Plaid. But when they return for the climactic crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the “Believers in the Bible Society,” humor's been ditched for melodrama. Seriousness serves the production wrong; aside from drastically downshifting the mood, the rather direct retelling of Jesus' story seems like an exhaustion of better ideas.
The closest audience members get is when Lawrence reveals that, in lieu of bland wafers, Moon Pies will be served as communion. But at that point, boredom has gripped the narrative, and audience members-much like Jews before them-are ready to sing the praises of the first half of the Gospel and dismiss everything after.
Thankfully, Deborah Gilmour plays the role of merciful god, and bulldozes through the second act in record time.