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Jesus went down to Georgia
Around the corner from the haunts and horrors of Halloween, Readers Theatre Plus is taking the holy route early by recreating the greatest story ever told, just in a different way.
Director Ric Munhall and music director Dewey Ehling bring “Cotton Patch Gospel,” a modern recreation of the books of Matthew and John set in rural Georgia, to the Old Dungeness Schoolhouse Nov. 2-14.
Based on the book “The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John” by Clarence Jordan, the play by Tom Key and Russell Treyz with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin, tells the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.
Ehling, also director of the Peninsula Singers, said Jordan was teaching the gospel to sharecroppers in Georgia, but they didn’t read or write, so he related to areas they knew: In his version, for example, Atlanta becomes Jerusalem.
“It tells the story of Jesus, but it doesn’t cheapen or weaken the gospel,” Ehling said. “It’s very down home and set in Georgia. I think of it as a theater piece and not an evangelistic thing. People can take what they want from it.”
Five actors — Ehling, Munhall, John Silver, Aaron Barnes and Dani Keller — play multiple roles each and change hats to signify a new one. Ehling takes the stage as an actor for the first time in years with parts as an apostle and John the Baptist.
“It’s really fun being on the stage, and it’s also humbling because it’s so different from conducting,” Ehling said.
Last year, he led music for “Plaid Tidings” for large crowds at the schoolhouse.
A key component to “Cotton Patch Gospel” is its music.
Live band members Sanford Feibus, Carl Honore and Wayne Shields take to the stage behind the action, performing for all the numbers including tunes sung by a gospel quartet of apostles.
Ehling finds the music ranges in emotion.
“It’s both raucous and very gospel at times and then very sweet and beautiful at other times,” he said
“In the second act, the song ‘You’re still My Boy’ is sung by Joseph and Mary with a partition separating them. It’s very moving.”
Carol Swarbrick Dries, co-coordinator of Readers Theatre Plus events, said they are holding the spiritual play earlier in the season so as not to conflict with the many productions occurring after Thanksgiving.
All proceeds from the event benefit four college scholarships for graduating high school seniors, two in Sequim and two in Port Angeles. Last year’s event gave out $3,200.