By Pat Robbennolt
This is the 20th anniversary production of the beloved Smoke on the Mountain.
Opening night felt like a reunion, seeing dear friends from years past and accepting the fact of change.
Daniel Black started playing Dennis, the boy twin, son of Burl in 1995. Now, he plays Burl and co-directs the show with Lauren Marshall-Murphy. Black has developed his musical skills on guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and harmonica during his years on the stage at the Playhouse. He has become a fine actor as well. He has added drama to the recreated the story of the explosion of the beer man’s car. He has encouraged each member of the cast to tweak his or her role.
It is amazing to see all the instruments in constant use by various cast members through the 27 songs that are an integral aspect of the show. These are indeed multi-talented actor/musicians. Some music is traditional gospel. Some is unique to Smoke on the Mountain, written by Connie Ray, conceived by Alan Bailey with the musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick.
Patty Payne has played the role of June over 900 times since the play opened in 1993. I remember her first as Burl’s older daughter. With a bow to reality, accepting the fact she was older than Black and others who played Burl, Payne became Burl’s sister. Every family needs a beloved Aunt June who has special understanding of their nieces and nephews. Her gyrations, as she interprets for the non-existent deaf audience, are hilarious. There is the tender moment as she hands Mervin a tambourine. It is she who asks us all the profound question, “Do we listen or just talk?”
Playhouse favorite Jason Ross equals Payne in longevity in Smoke. I have seen others play Mervin Oglethorpe over the years. No one comes on stage to celebrate the single electric light bulb so joyously as does Ross. No other actor holds the audience wordlessly in suspense as he searches for the delayed guests expected at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina in 1938. Ross can milk a line or a silent moment. Torn between joy in the music and concern for the feelings of his congregation, Ross elicits an evening full of laughter. Do not miss the subtle, yet budding, relationship between June and Mervin.
There are two cast members new to Smoke on the Mountain this year. We are grateful that Anna Baker has forsaken New England for the Cumberland Plateau. She becomes a delightful Denise Sanders, the girl twin. Her story of secretly boarding the bus for an audition for the movie role of Scarlett O’Hara is hilariously done. She is the innocent while trying to be an adult. Baker and Austin Price, the boy twin, are wonderfully funny together with the enhanced version of “Christian Cowboy.” Oglethorpe is left to wonder, “How open minded would Jesus be about a little swing?”
Co-directors Lauren Marshall and Daniel Black have clearly given Austen Price a chance to take that segment of the script as far as possible. It is outrageous and delightful.
Price has literally grown up at the Playhouse, moving from child actor to an adult member of the professional company. As Dennis, he succeeds in growing from the shy youngster attending Bible school, having his mother write his “sermonette” and preaching to his dog, Rufus, into a powerful Bible waving orator, in the space of the evening. Price allows himself to be a part of the ensemble in this show. Well done, Austin.
John Dobbratz moved seamlessly into the family as Stanley. He had played the role in Sanders Family Christmas. In fact, he appears to step easily into each and every role he has had since coming to the Playhouse. His fine vocal rendition of “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now” is deeply moving. Dobbratz’ telling the story of his powerful fellow prisoner is well done. He leads us to see beyond the angry prisoner to the lonely man, receiving his first hug since he was a twelve-year-old. Our hearts feel compassion, along with Stanley, for lonely prisoners everywhere whose journey has taken them behind bars.
Lauren Marshall both directs the musical aspect of the show and plays the role of the mother. Over the past several years, she has developed the role of Vera Sanders, the glue that holds this family together. Her remarkable musical talents as pianist and violinist undergird the production. Her voice adds to the ensemble; I am especially fond of her rendition of “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” as part of the so-called “Blood Medley.”
Smoke on the Mountain is dependent on a cohesive cast working together, shifting among a variety of instruments, blending their voices, and merging their talents into a whole for the sake of the performance. This cast managed to come together as one, even on this 20th year of opening nights.
We must add our word of thanks to Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. They have sponsored Smoke on the Mountain for all twenty years. As a reviewer, or in earlier years, the spouse of the reviewer, I have laughed and cried my way through countless productions of this show. It is great to take your guests to see it, but give yourself a treat and revisit Smoke on the Mountain.