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Posted March 12, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Jesus and bluegrass: Wayside Theatre brings back 'Cotton Patch Gospel'

Ray Ficca performs
Ray Ficca, front, performs in a previous production of "Cotton Patch Gospel" at Wayside Theatre in Middletown. He will be back for an encore performance, opening March 21. Courtesy photo

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By Natalie Austin


MIDDLETOWN -- Jesus is from Georgia, his disciples are a bluegrass band and King Herod is the mayor of Atlanta in Wayside Theatre's resurrection of the popular "Cotton Patch Gospel," which opens March 21.

Written by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, "Cotton Patch Gospel" features the final bluegrass music written by legend Harry Chapin before his death.

The musical was last performed in Wayside in 2003.

"It was a big hit for us. The audiences just loved this show," says Warner Crocker, Wayside's artistic director and director of "Cotton Patch Gospel."

The production features a bluegrass version of the gospels of Matthew and John. In this Southern-based retelling, Jesus is born in Gainesville, Ga., and makes his way to Atlanta. Christ is lynched only to rise again.

Crocker says he received requests for Wayside to do the musical again, but his final decision rested on the availability of actor Ray Ficca, who was in the first performance six years ago.

In the production Ficca plays Matthew, Jesus, John the Baptist, Judas, King Herod, Pontius Pilate and the high priest Kiafus. Matthew narrates the story.

Ficca, of Arlington, was available, and describes the musical as little 30-minute stories within the big story of Christ's birth and resurrection. Ficca is faced with between 40 and 45 pages of dialogue and also sings two of the 27 songs featured in the musical. He says he begins preparing about a month before rehearsals, both mentally and physically, including walking four miles a day. The production is extremely physical and with multiple characters to portray, says Ficca, and he has to stay on his mark to keep the action moving forward.

"I think it tells the story in a real accessible way," says Ficca. "That's what appeals to people."

Herod, who ordered the slaughter of all male babies after the word of Christ's birth, in the musical, bombs a church nursery in a modern form of domestic terrorism. Jesus has a last name, Davidson, as a descendent of the house of David. His parents are Mary and Joe. It's Dr. Kiafus in the musical, in which he is president of the Believed in the Bible Society.

Another major component in the musical is, well, the music, says Crocker, who says he has no trouble at all pulling from the wealth of bluegrass talent in the area.

"It has become part of our style that we put some pretty good country and bluegrass music on the stage," he says.

Wayside veterans Larry Dahlke, Steve Przybylski, Clay Arthur and Bob Payne make up the bluegrass quartet and also play disciples in the musical.

Timing also was perfect, falling during Lent with Easter in April, Crocker adds. "It's a great reminder of what we all are celebrating this time of year."

The lesson of the golden rule -- treat others as you would want to be treated -- is beautifully told in the musical, says Crocker.

There was a lot of prejudice in biblical times, adds Ficca, and the musical deals with this theme, as well. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the good deed is done by a minority.

Set in the deep South, Jesus is lynched rather than crucified.

But, all of the Gospel stories carry a message of love, Ficca adds, which comes through in "Cotton Patch Gospel."

Crocker says the story is for all ages.

"The piece, while it embraces that fantastic story and the love most have for Christ, talks to us about the choices we make in some respects," he says.

Along with the musical's run coinciding with the Christian calendar, it also comes at a time when many people need hope, says Crocker.

"Here we have one of the greatest stories ever told and retold, and it speaks to humanity," he says. "I think it can be a positive ray of hope in these crazy times."

Performances of "Cotton Patch Gospel" will begin on March 21. Opening night is 6:30 March 22. The remaining performances will be at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays. There will be no Easter performance on April 12. The musical closes on April 25. Ticket prices are $23 and $28, and $10 for children 17 and younger. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups. Call the box office at 869-1776 for more information.

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