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Thursday, August 12, 1999

Controversial show brings in crowds




BY KAREN SAMPLES
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FALMOUTH — Maybe Jesus' earring was a bit much. This occurred to Gina Kleesattel after an early performance of Cotton Patch Gospel, the musical playing in an old middle school here.

        On opening night, five women walked out, requested refunds and called the play sacrilegious. Another seven departed at intermission.

        Now an audience member was bringing up the stud in Jesus' ear.

        Ms. Kleesattel, the artistic director, braced herself for a tirade.

        Instead, she got a surprise.

        The earring made Jesus look hip, the woman said. Her church youth group would love it.

        One person's sacrilege is always another's good time, and in the Bible Belt especially, the gap between the two can look like an ocean. Thank goodness the naysayers can't dictate what the rest of us see.

        Once reporters got involved, the walkout became a “controversy,” and Ms. Kleesattel dutifully delivered sound bites on the subject. Meanwhile, the publicity has been packing people in. Wednesday's 2 p.m. matinee was full.

        In my book, Cotton Patch is one of the sweetest and tamest musicals around. Written by '70s songwriter Harry Chapin, it retells Mat thew's gospel with modern updates but the same messages.

        Jesus hangs out with regular Joes. He wears carpenter jeans and a button-down shirt. The musical is set in Georgia, which explains the abundant references to Southern food: After his 40-day fast, for instance, the messiah munches on chili cheese dogs delivered by an angel.

IF YOU GO
  There are three more chances to see the Kincaid Regional Theater's production of Cotton Patch Gospel.
  Performances are at 2 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the former Pendleton County Middle School on Chapel Street in Falmouth.
  Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens and $7 for children.
  For more information and directions, call 1-800-647-7469.
        The disciples talk of forming a non-profit corporation to put him on TV. He'll have none of this, of course, and the musical makes a point of ripping televangelist hypocri sy.

        Jesus rises from the dead, meets his followers on the road and calls out, “Howdy!” After healing a dying girl, he says, “Let's all have some breakfast.”

        Cotton Patch is gospel comedy grounded in scripture. Songs cover familiar territory — loving your neighbor, helping others and so on. The modern context gives these teachings a new urgency.

        At a recent performance, the audience laughed in all the right places, listened in tently and clapped heartily. Afterward, people brimmed with goodwill.

        “It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” one woman murmured. “And the boy who played Joe. ... his voice.” She cast her eyes heavenward.

        “Wasn't that good?” somebody else said. “Boy, it was enjoyable.”

        “Makes me wish I was 50 years younger. It would have been fun to perform in that.”

        A whiff of dissent does wonders for the box office, so Ms. Kleesattel isn't complaining. But she's puzzled. Cotton Patch has been around for years. She puts it in the same league as shows like Oklahoma! or Cheaper by the Dozen: standard crowd-pleasers.

        Nevertheless, evaluations turned in after the show have occasionally said, “I will pray for your mortal soul as you burn in hell.” Then the next one will say, “Great family entertainment!”

        Go figure.

        Ms. Kleesattel is director of Kincaid Regional Theater, a non-profitprofessional company that puts on two or three shows each season. The actors are mostly from our region, and their salaries are covered by state grants and corporate and individual donations.

        Ms. Kleesattel knows her market. People in Pendleton County aren't interested in the avant-garde. Give them fun musicals and plays with lots of children — everyone loves the children. As for Cotton Patch, those early walkouts complained about the portrayal of Jesus, Ms. Kleesattel says. They didn't like the way he came across as a common man.

        “I thought, wasn't that the point?” she says.

        For some of us, it is. But that's the beauty of art: We each make of it what we will.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@enquirer.com.