St. Augustine’s Limelight Theatre staged its final offering of 2016 with the opening of the musical “Cotton Patch Gospel” on December 1.

Tom Key and Russell Treyz wrote the book; Harry Chapin wrote the music and lyrics. The play debuted in 1981, just after the death of Chapin in an auto accident.

The play is a contemporary retelling in two acts of the story of the life of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Matthew with a slight update: the story is set in modern times in rural Georgia. The two-act play is fast paced and a crowd-pleaser, with delightful music and humor woven throughout the Biblical story.

Although it has at times been staged as a one-man show, Director and Musical Director Shelli Long has cast eight good-looking men of varying ages, all with excellent voices, for this show. Three fine musicians also appear on stage: Brooks Clarke (banjo and guitar), Sean Tillis (bass), and Kimberly Zielinski (violin); Ms. Zelinski appears briefly in the character of an angel.

The eight men are dressed in varied attire, including casual pullover shirts and farmers’ overalls. Blake Michael Osner, well-known to Jacksonville and St. Augustine audiences as a musical theatre performer, wears a suit and portrays Matthew, the narrator of much of the action; he also appears briefly in a number of other roles including that of Herod, the mayor of Atlanta.

devilSt. Johns River State College student, Ben LaBonne, plays only one role, that of Jesus, whose life is depicted from birth through death and a joyous resurrection. LaBonne’s performance is charismatic and you will find yourself rooting for his character as he faces the many difficulties, doubts, and trials recounted by Matthew.

All the actors other than LaBonne appear in multiple roles, and handled these demanding changes of character well. We had seen Michael Cejvanvoic and Brian Johnson in “The Little Mermaid” at Theatre Jacksonville, where they were excellent, but here, Chapin’s songs really bought out the quality of their voices. The rendition of “Jud” by Mr. Cejvanvoic was marvelous. Rounding the cast were Matt Kelly, Josh Morris, Jim Warren, and Fadil Cejvanovic.

There are eighteen songs in this musical, with many inviting foot stomping and hand clapping, with favorites being “Something’s Brewing in Gainesville” and “Ain’t no Busy Signals on the Hot Line to God.”


The set by Dom Grasso stretched across the stage and suggested a country western dance hall. The entire cast participated in numerous furniture changes that depicted the settings of the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. The dramatic lighting designs by designer Tom Fallon added to the quality of the production.

While the musical is an interesting choice for this Christmas season celebrating the birth of Jesus, note that a religious background is not required to enjoy “Cotton Patch Gospel!” It will appeal to all who enjoy energetic and vibrant musical experiences.


The Limelight Production Staff included: Shelli Long (Director, Musical Director, Properties Supervisor); Matthew Whaley (Assistant Director, Stage Manager); Ryan Walker (Assistant Stage Manager); Tom Fallon (Lighting Designer); Alison Zador (Costumer); Lillian Black (Costume Intern); Maria Tolzmann (Sound and Light Booth Operator); and Dom Grasso (Set Designer).

Cotton Patch Gospel will remain on the Matuza Main Stage on Old Mission Avenue in St. Augustine through December 31. For reservations, call 904-825- 1164 or visit

Up next for Limelight Theatre is Henrik Ibsen’s great social drama, “Hedda Gabler,” on stage during January 27-February 19, 2017.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.