MSMT & Portland Stage present SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN
For its sixth co-production since 2016, the Maine State Music Theater and Portland Stage have joined forces to present a production of soulful, heart-pounding, heart-pounding vocals from the gospel-bluegrass musical, SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN. Folkloric, funny and full of life, this cast of seven actor-musicians offers a touching and engaging evening of entertainment.
Set in 1938, the story centers on the Sanders family, whose performance at a Saturday night carol at a Baptist church in North Carolina takes on humorous and poignant twists, as the performers and minister share their stories, each witnessing in traditional gospel ways. , but finding their revelations to be less flashes of the divine and more truth from within their psyche.
Conceived by Alan Baileywith a book of Connie Ray and musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Marc HardwickSMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN had its off-Broadway premiere in 1990. The score features twenty-five traditional gospel hymns interspersed with a few bluegrass songs, and the seven members of the ensemble demonstrate their versatility by playing twenty-four instruments ranging guitar, bass, violin, banjo, mandolin and a wide range of percussion.
Jeff Stockberg directs the play with a deft hand, exhibiting wry humor and guiding the actors to strike emotional gold in their individual monologues.
music director Andrew Crow admirably succeeds in the complex task of bringing all the musical threads together into a cohesive and rich tapestry. The instrumental sound is pleasantly acoustic, alternately intimate or driving, while the singers cover a wide vocal range and harmonize in a catchy and convincing way.
The physical production makes admirable use of the Portland Stage space. Anita Stewart (Meg A. Anderson, Props) designs the evocative ensemble – a rural church interior, featuring pale, rustic wood walls, leaded Gothic windows, simple pews and a pulpit. Its palette of light beige with dark wood accents is complemented by Kathleen Payton Brown’s period costumes in earth tones and country prints that capture country flair. Lighting designer Jamie Grant envelops the set in a warm evening glow that radiates a kind of inner light, while sound designer Chris Fitze effortlessly balances vocals, instrumental and spoken word. Meg Lydon anchors the production as stage manager.
The cast of seven proves to be a virtuoso, musically talented and dramatically appealing company. Like Reverend Oglethorpe, Jean ShipsJr. is endearingly goofy and warm, and he shows a big, strong vocal presence in numbers like “Jesus Is Mine” and “Angel Band.” larry tobiasas patriarch Sanders Burl, is dead serious, while April Lee Uzarski plays his wife Vera with sly humor – outwardly pious to the point of disapproval, until she reveals her own repressed and confusing definitions of the sin and salvation in his fun monologue on June Bugs.
Andrew Crow makes Stanley, Burl’s brother, a troubled soul whose ruthless testimony reveals tenderness, vulnerability, and a truer definition of grace. Elleon Dobias as Denise and Daniel Emond as Dennis make a lovely couple as the Sanders twins. Pert and whimsical, Dobias effectively plays the ingenuous and delivers her moment of self-revelation with sweet, silly longing, and she proves a charming singer in “I’ll Never Die” and an endearing actress in “Christian Cowboy” with Edmund. Son Dennis, pathologically shy at first, emerges in a sermon where his lyrics and singing take flight. To finish, Sarah Hund, as June, the non-singing sister whose signature “gift” is, provides some of the funniest and most touching moments of the evening as she exuberantly attempts her version of ASL that is desperately irrelevant and yet, in a way, gently poetic. Contributing to musical arrangements by playing a wide variety of percussion instruments, from washboards and cowbells to triangle and tambourine, she makes every moment dramatically real. And her obvious attraction to Reverend Oglethorpe seems like a perfect match for these two quirky characters.
As the cast climbs to the rousing finale, beginning with a moving rendition of “Smoke on the Mountain,” followed by a soaring “I’ll Fly Away,” and ending with “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder”, the audience was carried away by the musical fervor. There’s laughter, joy and sheer delight, as the characters – in all their authenticity and honesty – celebrate the sheer beauty and breathtaking wonder of their very flawed humanity.
Photos courtesy of Portland Stage, Mical Hutson, photographer
SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, a co-production of MSMT & Portland Stage, runs August 2-28, 2022 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207-774-0465 www.portlandstage.org