Arts & Entertainment

'Cotton Patch Gospel' takes the stage

The Cotton Patch Gospel is perhaps one of the greatest stories ever retold -- a retelling of the story of Jesus with a 20th century twist.

In this version, presented by a wide-ranging group of Tri-City actors, Jesus is born in an abandoned trailer behind a motel in Gainesville, Ga.

But instead of being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger, he's cuddled into a comforter and the manger is an apple crate.

Now this might seem a bit unconventional to some, but the musical message in Cotton Patch Gospel is as powerful as the Bible describes it. It also gives the Almighty a sense of humor that doesn't always come across in biblical teachings. Even if you're not a church-going person, the music and story in this play are as entertaining as it gets.

The show opens Aug. 10 at Bethel Church, 600 Shockley Road, Richland. There also will be performances Aug. 11, 17-18. Showtimes are 7 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees Aug. 12 and 19. Admission is free.

The musical story was written by Tom Key and Russell Treyz with the music and lyrics written by the late Harry Chapin just prior to his death in 1981. It was based on the book The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John by Clarence Jordan.

"By setting the story of Jesus in Georgia, (the writers) challenged my view of Jesus and his ministry," director Deb Donahoe said. "I was continuously being forced to think about our current society and what Jesus might do and say today.

"Jesus was no longer someone from 2,000 years ago who came with a powerful message. He became a contemporary person as I read and listened to how his words might be applied today."

The musical is narrated by Matthew the storyteller, played by Emily Katherine Shick. Her dad, Sam Shick, plays the evil Herod.

As the story unfolds, Herod is the governor of Georgia when Jesus is born in the abandoned trailer. He learns, through the National Enquirer, that a child has been born who's predicted to be the future governor of Georgia. That doesn't set well with Governor Herod, so he hires a thug to bomb the nursery where Jesus is staying with his parents.

Joe and Mary Davidson, the parents of Jesus and played by Faye and Gregg Serene, get wind of Herod's plan, so they escape to Mexico. They return after the wicked Herod dies, and Jesus grows into manhood and establishes a movement that challenges organized religion, which entices religious fanatic groups to put pressure on government officials to kill him because his teachings threaten their beliefs.

"The story is told through catchy and heartwarming music and captivating storytelling," Donahoe said. "There are 28 original songs or short musical phrases in the show, many of them in foot-stomping, hand-clapping bluegrass style that encourages audience participation.

"The musical also evokes a wide range of emotions, from laughing-out-loud funny to thought-provoking silence," she added.

Vocal director for the show is Elise Reel-Fryhling.

"From the first time I heard the Cotton Patch score, I knew what a unique and moving show it would be," Reel-Fryhling said. "The score is so rich, from the toe-tappin' bluegrass numbers to the beautiful ballads. There's something for everyone. It's been a joy to discover the layers with this musical with such an energetic and talented cast."

Other key Tri-City actors playing various roles in the production include Erin Ballo, Kayla Oleson, Scott Miller, Phillip Ellefson, Josh Neath, Ryan Grandy, Gene Carbaugh, Lorna Foelber, Paige Foelber and Rick Donahoe.

"Cotton Patch Gospel is an opportunity for a group of individuals to come together to tell an important story in an unexpected location and time," said Rick Donahoe, who plays an angel and Dr. Caiphas. "As members of the cast and crew, we learn about ourselves as we perform for an audience. But this story is not just about us. It's about something much bigger that makes us all grow."

The cast is a mix of ages from preschoolers to senior citizens. Some are veteran actors and some are newcomers, such as 4-year-old Jeremy Fryhling.

"He knew all the songs by heart and he wanted to be in the show, so we had to find a role for him," the director said.

The most important part of the show is that its story appeals to all faiths, Donahoe said.

"We have several people from different churches involved with this production and many who are (not church-goers)," she said. "I think we all came into this show with our own ideas and beliefs about Jesus, and yet we have come to accept and value our differences. We've learned to work together to tell an amazing and thought-provoking story."

*Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; doneal@tricityherald.com

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