Shows that deal with faith and religion aren’t easy to pull off. If handled poorly, stories about spirituality can become too corny or preachy.
There is never a moment when Lamb’s Players Theatre’s production of the musical, Smoke on the Mountain turns into a cheesy sermon (the company has produced the piece several times). Instead, it’s an entertaining, light comedy that showcases the talent of the seven-person ensemble.
A 1930’s fictional Christian group, known as the Sanders Family Singers, stops by Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church (Patrick Duffy’s set looks just like a real house of worship) to perform famous and original tunes for the North Carolina congregation. Members of the group include the perky matriarch, Vera Sanders (Associate Artistic Director and director of Patron Services, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, reprising her role for the seventh time), her wholesome husband, Burl (Rik Ogden) and their socially awkward son, Dennis (Beau Brians).
They perform melodies such as “The Church in the Wildwood,” “Christian Cowboy” and “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map.”
Lamb’s Associate Artistic Director, Kerry Meads, stages her interpretation in the style of a church concert. Her direction feels almost improvisational, since the Sanders have a with a go-with-the-flow attitude.
What draws theatregoers into the lives of the Sanders are the artists who star in the production. Every member of the clan acts like a genuine part of a family unit.
Smyth, Ogden, Brains, Steve Gouveia as ex-convict uncle Stanley Sanders, and Annie Buckley as daughter Denise Sanders, are all in sync with each other. They each get individual moments to impress during group and solo numbers.
Besides acting and singing, the leads also play different instruments. Their musicianship adds to the believability that they are a real musical group.
Aside from the major stars, there are two often-comedic roles with Katie Sapper as daughter June, and Brian Mackey as Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe. As June maintains that she can’t sing, she backs up her siblings and parents as a coconut-shell percussionist. She also translates songs for the deaf through sign language.
Although Sapper has proven many times to be a gifted singer, she isn’t given any moments to vocally cut loose, which isn’t necessarily a criticism. Without ever breaking character, Sapper commits to the role of the hardworking and eager interpreter.
Both cheerful and anxious, Mackey makes Mervin a welcoming host of sorts for the evening, singing with enthusiasm during “Rock of Ages” and “Jesus is Mine.”
Linking the songs together is Connie Ray’s script. Her humor pokes fun at the various quirks of each character.
Brians, in particular, physically embodies the unusual traits of Dennis. His bizarre body movements and way of speaking are often very funny.
Smoke on the Mountain might be an enjoyable show, but the 135-minute running time is a little excessive.
Every person in the narrative speaks directly to the audience for a couple of minutes. Some monologues, such as Burl’s anecdote about possibly selling beer and Denise’s reflections about auditioning for “Gone With the Wind,” could have been trimmed. Others, such as Stanley’s touching path to redemption and Vera’s hilarious speech about june bugs, are effective in conveying different emotions.
Another aspect that feels tacked on is a dramatic issue that takes place before intermission. As there is so little focus on conflicts, having one start right before a break doesn’t add much to Smoke on the Mountain. Since the problem is solved almost immediately in the opening Act 2, the source of tension doesn’t really seem needed.
While Ray’s script is a few pages too long, there is plenty to recommend in Meads’ family friendly rendition. The night delivers as a satisfying selection for a diverse 2017 season.