Cotton Patch Gospel
In the down-home town of Gainesville, Georgia, a virgin named Mary gets pregnant and bears a babe named Jesus. This 20th-century Jesus comes not to usher in apocalypse but to spread the gospel and sing bluegrass, as if the whole business never quite happened the first time.
Gospel—a large-scale revamp of Provision’s 2004 production of the 1981 Off Broadway show—includes eight folk-singing, instrument-wielding chorus members as an enlivening musical backdrop. But the play belongs to Gregory, who, as a modern-day Matthew, single-handedly reenacts most of the New Testament’s major plot points in a series of deft vaudeville skits and a bevy of bluegrass solos. More impressive than his virtuosity is his skillful avoidance of kitsch: Gregory propels the evening forward with a charisma that stops short of hamminess.
Make no mistake: Gospel plays the cutesy card when the opportunity arises. Upon resurrection, Jesus stops at the local diner for “a cup o’ coffee and a slice of pecan pie”—since he’s Just Plain Folks, and all. Despite Gregory’s immense skill, his narrative voice defaults into the irksome aw-shucks cadence Pat Robertson made notorious. But the play succeeds because its slightly manufactured rural-Southern aesthetic plays second fiddle to more universal meditations on Christian love. It’s this moral imperative that the songs by “Cat’s in the Cradle” folkie Chapin repeatedly turn to, with barely a hint of didacticism. Whether these Christian themes resonate with you for their sanctity or simply for their alien, upbeat benignity, their lively embodiment makes for two hours of knee-slapping fun.