Cotton Patch Gospel
Taproot Theatre, 781-9707.
Extended through July 14.

Songwriter Harry Chapin ("Cat's in the Cradle") pulled a Rent on Cotton Patch Gospel--he died weeks before the early '80s off-Broadway premiere of his musical re-imagining of the New Testament (adapted from a one-act play by Tom Key, which was itself adapted from a book by Clarence Jordan). Taproot Theatre produced the non-musical one-act in 1980, and has now mounted the musical version. Experiencing these Gospels in their final form gives Seattle audiences one more reason to envy deceased eight-track icon and pop-folk legend Chapin: He didn't have to sit through his own show.

That may seem harsh, but faced with the suffocating geniality that emanates from every pore of Cotton Patch Gospel, one must either give in or get nasty. Giving in has its appeal: the songs are pretty, solo narrator Scott Nolte and the harmonizing musicians/Greek chorus are fine, and the show moves at a lively pace. One can certainly imagine vast numbers of undemanding theatergoers having a delightful time, nailing down every reference to "Governor Herod" and "Jud" with a knowing chuckle and clapping their hands in time.

The rest of us are screwed. At times, the play seems content to celebrate the mere existence of Jordan's original, Southern-fried text as an artistic end unto itself. Important decisions of staging--like having a narrator play all the parts, and framing the story as a speech given by the apostle Matthew--come across like accidents of the play's extended birth instead of meaningful creative choices. The narrative lacks urgency, other than a desire to get to the next joke--remarkable given the original source material, forgivable if the jokes were actually funny. But the majority of what passes for humor is endless reiterations of the Jesus-as-a-Southerner conceit. This may have been enlightening in 1968 in the turbulent South, perhaps even moving; but three decades later and thousands of miles away, it's like having the playwrights running down the aisles and asking you to high-five them every three seconds. This is the greatest story ever told?