Friends University music director David Weber likes to think of "Cotton Patch Gospel" as a retelling of Jesus' life "in a pickin' and grinnin' style."
"It is a very upbeat show that is tremendous fun to do," says Weber, who is teaming with stage director Charles Parker and choreographer Diane Gans for the musical. "But it is one of those shows that also carries a tremendous message. It stays with you."
The show opens Friday at Friends and features a 23-member student cast.
Dating from the early 1980s, the musical is based on Clarence Jordan's book "The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John," but is best known for the music composed by the late storyteller and troubadour Harry Chapin. He finished the 20-or-so songs just before he died in a car crash in 1981 at the age of 39.
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Tom Key and Russell Treyz adapted Jordan's book, which set Jesus' life in rural, Depression-era Georgia. Enthusiastic critics dubbed it "The Greatest Story Ever Retold" with Jesus growing up in Gainesville rather than Bethlehem and Herod holding court in Atlanta rather than Jerusalem.
"It was another attempt to make Jesus' story relevant to a young generation. 'Godspell' did it with folk (music) and 'Jesus Christ Superstar' did it with rock. 'Cotton Patch' does it with country," Weber says. "I grew up in North Carolina, so it brings back memories of wonderful Southern dialect, style, culture and values. It's authentic."
The storytelling songs, accompanied by a bluegrass combo on stage, take audiences on a joyous, emotional and compelling ride from "Somethin's Brewing in Gainesville" to "Sho Nuff" to "Jubilation" to "The Last Supper," "One More Tomorrow" and "I Wonder."
Weber said this production is particularly special for the cast because, through a faculty contact, they got a personal note wishing them well from Tom Chapin, brother of composer Harry Chapin and the show's original music director. Chapin advised them to be sure to "have a great time and the audience will want to be on stage with you at the end."
Playing Jesus is Lyons junior Joel Domenico. Matthew the Narrator is Holcomb junior Zach Bailor, and John the Baptizer is Andover senior Kyle Gallegos. Mary is played by both Salina senior Megan Price and Wichita senior Celeste Morris, and Joe is Odessa, Texas, senior Bryan Foreman. Herod is Odessa senior James McAdams.
Providing the pickin' are Rob Loren on fiddle, Richard Crowson on banjo and guitar, Aaron Fowler on guitar, Caleb Drummond on bass and Jozelle Wallace on piano. Weber, as music director, said he will also be on stage "probably playing a washboard."
If you go
'cotton patch gospel'
What: Country-flavored retelling of Jesus' life through music of Harry Chapin
Where: Sebits Auditorium in Riney Fine Arts Center at Friends University campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
How much: Tickets: $15 adults, $12 seniors, students and children. Call 316-295-5537.