Take the familiar stories of of the New Testament, add some contemporary tunes and you might have Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell. But you’re on the Showboat Majestic this month, so it’s Cotton Patch Gospel, which transplants Jesus and his disciples to a caricatured version of the American South in the early 1970s.
Cotton Patch Gospel is based on a 1971 retelling of the Gospel of Matthew by Clarence Jordan, with music by singer-songwriter Harry Chapin written just before his death in a car accident in 1981.
Once you get the filter — the opening number is a high-speed Bluegrass song, “Somethin’s Brewin’ in Gainesville” — you pretty much know what’s coming for the next two hours. Actor Mike Hall plays John the Baptist as a revival-styled preacher; Herod and Pilate are corrupt politicians. It’s a cornpone congregation with mostly lighthearted moralizing. (The show avoids a maudlin recreation of the crucifixion; we learn that Jesus is lynched but don’t witness it.)
The humor could become a bit repetitive, but excellent singing by the 10 cast members sustains the two-act revival meeting from start to finish with updated versions of familiar Bible parables. Joshua Steele shows off his fine voice and acting talents as Jesus, and Max Chernin, a musical theater major at CCM, is Matthew, the show’s affable narrator. Sweet-voiced tenor Matt Dentino and versatile Aretta Baumgardner partner as “Joe and Mary” to sing the tender “You Are Still My Boy.”
Will Selnick anchors an amusing Gospel quartet with his big voice — their featured numbers are “Ain’t No Busy Signals (on the Hotline to God)” and “Spitball Me Lord (Over the Home Plate of Life”). The other fine singers onstage are Michelle Berkowitz, Heather Roush, R. DeAndré Smith and Mike Sherman.
Even if you’re not religious, the cast's infectious performances just might revive you.
COTTON PATCH GOSPEL continues through July 25 on the Showboat Majestic on downtown's central riverfront. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.