WEEKEND Retelling of a classic: ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ in Sequim

DUNGENESS — They call it “the greatest story ever retold”: Mary and Joe’s boy Jesus, born in present-day rural Georgia and baptized in the Chattahoochee River.

Yes, brothers and sisters, this is “Cotton Patch Gospel,” unfolding tonight and for the next two weeks at the old Dungeness Schoolhouse.

And there will be schooling, by way of singing and playing of twangy music by real live musicians, for this is a Readers Theatre Plus production with emphasis on the Plus.

Ric Munhall, the well-known thespian from Sequim, and Dewey Ehling, musical director of ensembles across the Olympic Peninsula, are staging the show, replete with a cast of biblical characters.

Jesus & Matthew

While Munhall portrays both Jesus and the apostle Matthew — on whose gospel the story is based — the other four actors are called upon to play several roles each. Ehling, for his part, is taking a highly unusual turn.

He’s always been the conductor — of the Port Townsend Community Orchestra, for one example — or the director of the Peninsula Singers, who specialize in classical and Broadway music. In “Cotton Patch Gospel,” however, he’s stepping onto the stage to play John the Baptizer in Act 1 and Pontius Pilate in Act 2.

That’s the way this play works: a few actors portraying many important folk. “Cotton Patch” was written by the late Clarence Jordan, a minister and scholar who sought in the 1960s to teach the New Testament to Southern sharecroppers.

This is one feel-good show, Munhall said, thanks to its leavening with song by the late Harry Chapin of “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi” fame. Chapin, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom for his work to end hunger around the world, composed the country songs, which are “kind of a stretch for me,” Ehling said.

“It’s a lot of really good music,” he added — and the fun level looked high in a rehearsal earlier this week. Giving it the Georgia sound are fiddler Waynne Shields, stand-up bassist Sanford Feibus and guitarist-banjo man Carl Honore, all of whom stay on stage throughout the show.

“This is really fun,” Munhall said, adding that this is his first time working beside Ehling on stage. “I had never heard him sing before,” Munhall said, since Ehling has always been the one with the baton, not the voice.

Ehling said he decided to do this after not one but two other actors had to drop out of “Cotton Patch.”

The rejection that might come after asking a third actor to step in was too much for him, Ehling joked. So in he stepped, to be John, who in this version is called Jack.

Gusto

Like Munhall and the rest of the small cast — John Silver, Dani Keller and Aaron Barnes — Ehling is older than Jesus and his apostles were in the New Testament. But what they lack in youth they make up for with gusto, singing in harmony and fully inhabiting the “Cotton Patch” scenario. They’re a versatile bunch: Keller plays Mary, the angels and several other roles; Silver plays Joe, aka Joseph, as well as a televangelist preacher and Barnes plays Herod and Judd, aka Judas.

For Munhall and Ehling, this is the second coming of “Cotton Patch.” They produced it together in 2002, soon after Munhall got involved in community theater. He has since learned, he said, that “everything Dewey does is solid gold.”

“Cotton Patch Gospel” arrives on stage at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. Wednesdays today through Nov. 14, and at 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 11 at the Dungeness Schoolhouse, 2781 Towne Road. Tickets are $15 per person or two for $25 at Odyssey Books, 114 W. Front St., Port Angeles, and Pacific Mist Books, 121 W. Washington St., Sequim. Proceeds will benefit the scholarships Readers Theatre Plus awards each year to local students.

“Cotton Patch Gospel” is “not like you’re going to church,” Munhall said. “It’s a hootenanny-hoedown kind of show. And it’s funny, but it’s not like we’re making fun.

“It’s just a different take on the ‘love your neighbor’ message, the whole idea of doing as much as you can for people.”

One of Munhall’s favorite moments comes when Joe and his wife Mary realize that Jesus is bound to leave them. They have to let go, just like all parents do. Yet deep in their hearts, “you are still my boy,” the couple sings.

Since “Cotton Patch Gospel” is the story of Jesus’ birth, death and life, it must also have its tragic moments, Munhall noted. But the end, he feels, this is a great spirit lifter. It’s about how the message of love continues, after all.

“Small cast,” said the director.

“Big message.”

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