Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wetumpka Depot: "Smoke on the Mountain"

Smoke on the Mountain, the popular and often produced 1988 Gospel-bluegrass musical, is playing to sold out audiences at the Wetumpka Depot. -- Director Hazel Jones' talented ensemble turns in broadly stereotypical characterizations; but they impress us with their versatility in both singing and playing an assortment of musical instruments, often switching from piano to upright bass to guitar, washboard, spoons, and so on. -- The actors are complemented on stage by Elizabeth Bowles and Donny Tomlin who deftly accompany them on mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and dulcimer among others -- a truly "joyful noise".

The Connie Ray and Alan Bailey story of The Sanders Family's appearance in 1938 at the fictional rural North Carolina Mount Pleasant Baptist Church's "first ever Saturday night singing", mixes familiar songs from The Hymnal with original tunes so like them it is hard to tell the difference.

Pastor Oglethorpe [Jeff Langham] attempts to maintain the traditional purity of his congregation's mission while simultaneously bringing them "into the modern world". -- He invited The Sanders Family who say that "witnessing is the most important part of our mission...and the songs"; but the Pastor isn't prepared for their unabashedly honest and often shocking behavior, and must placate the three ladies sitting judgmentally in The Amen Corner of the church.

And what a group this family is: first on the scene is the bright-eyed and pig-tailed June [Faith Bruner], who doesn't sing, but rather "signs" the lyrics as her testimony -- not the standard ASL by any means, but some outrageous interpretive gestures that Ms. Bruner produces with hilarious dead-pan simplicity.

The other children are twins: petite curly-haired blonde Denise [an effervescent Leanna Wallace] -- "the girl" as she is quick to differentiate from Dennis, "the boy" [Joseph Collins], a mentally challenged [PC] towering figure whose innocence and sincerity are always on display. -- Their rendition of "Christian Cowboy" scandalizes the Pastor when they dance enthusiastically; Ms. Wallace's admitted "lapse of faith" when she ran away to audition for Gone With the Wind is sweetly rendered; and Mr. Collins' "sermonette" when he goes off-script from what his mother penned for him, shows Dennis' natural ability as a preacher.

Mom Vera [Sally Blackwell] and Dad Burl [Lloyd Strickland] are the bedrock of the family. These actors demonstrate such a natural comfort that we are instantly drawn to them. Each provides ample  lessons in compassion and tolerance -- the virtues so often lacking in many professed Christians in the public eye -- and they are also adept at quoting Chapter and Verse in cleverly orchestrated competitive games of one upmanship with Mr. Langham's Pastor.

Jonathan Yarboro plays Burl's brother Stanley, an ex-con who found his way in prison, and is still struggling with the hypocrisy of others. In a finely nuanced performance, Mr. Yarboro's character is the most tolerant and unassuming man whose testimony of prison experience shows the good in even the most hardened individuals.

Through all the testifying and songs, both Pastor Oglethorpe and we are gradually seduced by the honest homespun faith of The Sanders Family. Audiences are leaving the Depot with smiles on their faces from this engaging production. -- If only their "joyful noise" could have a permanent impact.