Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Things To Do

June 21, 2012

REVIEW: Smoke on the Mountain makes for a delightful evening once again

CROSSVILLE — What a joy to spend some time with the Sanders family. “Smoke on the Mountain” has returned once again to the Adventure Theater of the Cumberland County Playhouse. This delightful musical has been the signature piece of the Playhouse for many years. It is constantly “tweaked.” The minor additions of body movement and interaction between the actors means that it feels ever new to those of us who have seen it countless times.    

At the show’s beginning, Jason Ross, as Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe, is clearly stalling. His hair slicked down with the ever-present comb, a bit of piano playing, words of encouragement to congregation members who question this musical event in the church all contribute to the feeling of expectation. Still we wait. Ross is a master of the art of the unspoken word. He communicates his tension to his audience. The stained glass window and that wonderful addition, the electric light bulb, aid us in knowing that we are in Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. It is June of 1938. We are assured that the church is moving right on into the future.

No matter how many times I have seen the show, I heave a sigh of relief when June Sanders, in the person of the versatile Patty Payne, dashes into the theater.

This non-singing member of the Sanders Family Singers has been sent ahead to report an accident. Their bus has turned over. All the family members had shifted to the same side of the bus to watch those baby gherkin escapees from the Pleasant Pickle factory floating down the street. The bus just turned right on over. With that sort of problem at the beginning, we know hilarity is to follow.

Daniel Black both directs the show and plays Burl Sanders, clearly the head of the household. Associate director and music director Lauren Marshall returns as Vera Sanders. She is the mother, attempting to be a stabilizing influence on the clan. Austin Price and Emily Woods play their twin children Dennis and Denise Sanders.

The family has only recently been able to embrace Stanley Sanders, the brother of Burl, as a part of the performing clan. Tommy Hancock is back playing the role of that tough yet gentle man. June, Patty Payne, the sister of Burl and Stanley, is clearly the old maid aunt who makes her home with Burl and Vera.

Payne is at her best as she throws her whole body into sign language in case there happens to be someone present who is deaf. Her musical additions on the tambourine, cymbals and seed filled jar are done with gusto. Payne has played June with countless other cast members. Yet she continues to add newness to the role.

Early on, Austin Price projects a shy, somewhat withdrawn young Bible student. However, Price allows Dennis to develop from the frightened kid whose Mama wrote his sermonette to the able lead vocalist on “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap.”

Vera, ably played by Lauren Marshall, delights in besting Oglethorpe with her biblical knowledge. Her tale of the “June Bug” seemed to me to be the funniest yet.

Marshall is a talented violinist and vocalist. Her staging of the 28 songs in the show is remarkable. The cast switches instruments among the bass, the guitar, piano, ukulele, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and accordion to say nothing of the train whistle, bells and cymbals that Payne adds.

Ross is a master of wordlessly rapt attention. He makes no response to the loud noise while listening to Daniel Black, as Burl, tell of his encounter with the beer salesman.          

Hancock is very convincing as the angry ex-convict who is trying to control the anger that is always close to the surface. He has had a tough life. He feels he has let his family down. He has learned some unexpected lessons on love from his fellow prisoners.

He is unsure of himself in the church setting. He is hesitant to trust Oglethorpe. Yet, he is working hard to rejoin society and his family. I felt great empathy for Stanley as Hancock played him. Personally, I was disappointed by the laughter that followed the revelation that he had been in prison. But it is not my role to “review” the audience.  

Emily Woods’ lovely voice blends well with the rest of the cast. She and Price are especially delightful as they add considerable action to “Christian Cowboy,” trusting that Jesus would like a little swing added to life.

Children in the audience were clearly having a great time. The audience joined in foot tapping, clapping, and, when encouraged, singing. It was once again, a delightful evening as the Sanders family brought their music to Mount Pleasant and to us. 

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