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Posted March 26, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Review: 'Cotton Patch Gospel' boasts a spirited cast

Cotton Patch Gospel
Ray Ficca, on chair, Bob Payne, Clay Arthur, Steve Przybylski and Larry Dahlke are appearing at Wayside Theatre in “Cotton Patch Gospel.” in Middletown, VA, Through April 25, 2009. Call (540) 869-1776 for reservations. Courtesy photo. Photography by Westervelt.

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By John Horan Jr. - jhoran@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- Moseying farther down familiar byways, Wayside Theatre follows its home-grown musical "Southern Cross Roads" with the bluegrass "Cotton Patch Gospel," which transplants the story of Jesus to 20th-century Georgia.

Though both exude a comfortable amiability and boast first-rate musicianship, "Cotton Patch Gospel" is a more somber, poignant experience, an apt Lenten contrast to the raucous hilarity of "Southern Cross Roads."

"Cotton Patch Gospel" retells the events of Jesus' life through the convincing exertions of the multi-talented Ray Ficca and a bluegrass quartet, which also serves as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on and reacting to the action.

The musical is an outgrowth of a series of books by Clarence Jordan, a theologian who sought to make Scripture more accessible by expressing it in contemporary language and placing it in the modern South. He also founded Koinonia Partners, a progressive Christian farm community in southwest Georgia. One of his disciples started Habitat for Humanity.

While the show, by Tom Key and Russell Treyz, is accessible, it's so down to earth that at times it verges on the pedestrian. Its laid-back approach lacks the edge and provocativeness of "Jesus Christ Superstar," to cite another modern musical look at the Gospels.

The songs of "Cotton Patch Gospel" are polished, reflecting the talents of the late Harry Chapin, the singer-songwriter who perfected the minimalist art of storytelling in popular song. Yet Chapin's efforts here are uneven -- clever lyrics and intriguing harmonies coexisting with more prosaic tunes.

Still, the Wayside production, directed by Warner Crocker, boasts a talented, high-spirited cast. The musicians -- Clay Arthur, Larry Dahlke, Bob Payne and Steve Przybylski -- have a grand time pickin' and singin'.

Ficca, reprising his role from Wayside's 2003 production, expertly evokes the various characters in the Gospel story and gives each of them a distinctive cast. He also sings a couple of songs in a rather thin voice.

Set designer Til Turner frames the stage with geometric panels. The effective lighting by Adam J. Gearhart gives added punch to the climax of the story.

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