“Cotton Patch Gospel”
Through Aug. 30 at Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta; Sept. 3-20 at Georgia Ensemble Theatre in Roswell. 678-528-1500. www.theatricaloutfit.org
By Bert Osborne
For the AJC
None of us is getting any younger — and that goes for Tom Key, too. Artistic director of Theatrical Outfit since 1995, and a fixture in Atlanta’s acting community for 20 years before that, he even made a splash on the national scene in the 1980s with his “Cotton Patch Gospel” (co-written by Russell Treyz).
Based on Clarence Jordan’s “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John,” it began as a one-man show, but soon developed into a country musical (songs by Harry Chapin) that gave Key a backup band to play off. He toured the show for years. To this day, it’s oft-produced at theaters across the country, and something of his signature piece with local audiences, thanks to frequent revivals.
In his last “Cotton Patch” (2005 at the Outfit), Key balanced the spirited physicality and spiritual introspection with typical aplomb, aided by two ensemble players to share the singing and storytelling.
Coming off a tour de force in the drama “Blood Knot” this month, it’s surely understandable that for the Outfit’s latest “Gospel,” Key steps offstage and takes a director’s seat.
To call it the end of an era sounds a bit much, although it’s definitely a passing of the torch — into the estimable hands of Daniel Thomas May, one of our fiercest actors. Had you only seen him in “Hamlet,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” or any number of heavy roles, you might think him ill-suited for the folksy charm of “Cotton Patch.” But if you caught the Outfit’s recent “Tent Meeting,” and its unprecedented display of May’s beautiful singing voice, you know he’s always capable of surprise.
Possibly flashing more toothy grins than he has in the rest of his career put together, May creates a relaxed rapport as the Narrator, and he does amazing things with his body and voice to portray a host of other characters. He improves on Key’s performance by leaps and bounds — at least in the literal sense of possessing the stamina to jump on and off chairs and tables, or sprint up and down the platforms of Jamie Bullins’ set.
Co-produced with Georgia Ensemble (where it will play for three weeks after the Outfit run), the show features Eric Moore, Krystal Washington and an interactive band: Scott DePoy, Buck Peacock, Ryan Richardson and Rick Taylor, under the lively musical direction of Michael Fauss.
Jonathan Summers’ sound design is remarkably unobtrusive. Except for a few deliberate reverberating effects, or an occasional glimpse of wiring, you’d barely realize the cast was miked at all — the ultimate praise in a line of work that distorts music and lyrics as often as it enhances them.
Despite its inspirational intentions, “Cotton Patch” isn’t overly inspired theater, at this late date. Its homespun retelling of the Gospels has never been for every taste. Angels bear chili cheese dogs, and wise men gold American Express cards.
Jesus is born in a Gainesville trailer park and baptized in the Chattahoochee. He delivers his Sermon on the Mount from Stone Mountain, natch. He’s lynched and born again in Valdosta.
If only to hear May say it, “Yee-haw,” indeed.