You know what they say about smoke and fire, and you'll find a blaze in Circa 21's production of Connie Ray's Smoke on the Mountain. The kindling is Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe's rather lethargic congregation. The match is the Sanders family, a traveling evangelical musical group. Put the two together and a foot-tapping, spirit-lifting evening of song erupts.
What makes this production so enjoyable is the incredibly talented cast; their musical abilities are astounding. It can't be easy keeping perfect harmony while scrambling around the stage in search of the variety of musical instruments that each cast member plays exceptionally well, but Jean Norton's musical direction made the transitions seamless. The best aspect of the cast's performance is their believable sincerity.
Pastor Oglethorpe knows his congregation is in desperate need of a spiritual transfusion, but he is a bit leery of the Sanders family. After all, his is a Baptist church, and too much "cuttin' loose" is frowned upon. He struggles to maintain order in his service and in himself as he is increasingly swept up by the spirit in the music. Throughout the evening, Pastor Oglethorpe is a bundle of nervous anticipation, doubt, and just-can't-help-himself enthusiasm, and Derek Whittaker brings him to life.
The Sanders family has a level of humanness that's easy to embrace. They have strengths and faults and a willingness to share them both, and their joy is infectious. Even the good pastor eventually has to dig his accordion out of the church basement to join them in song.
Burl Sanders is the gentle patriarch of this musical clan, and Bob Payne plays him to perfection. Pam Pendleton's performance as Vera, Burl's wife, is a wonderful complement. Together they embody a quiet strength that guides the rest of the family through the lessons they find in the simplest aspects of life.
June Sanders doesn't have a lick of musical talent but she can sign up a storm - and that's her niche in the family. Margaret Eilertson blends June's innocence and attempts at sophistication with warmth and humor. One of the most moving moments in the play comes when June explains that her gift is found in silence, and one of the funniest moments occurs when June and Pastor Oglethorpe discover a spark of attraction between them.
Stanley Sanders is Burl's brother who has reconnected with the family after a stay in prison, but it hasn't been easy. Brad Hauskins allows us to see Stanley's struggle to live an honest life, and in the number "Everyone Home But Me," every nuance of that struggle is felt. Rounding out the Sanders family are the twins Dennis and Denise. Adam Clough and Hollie Molesworth bring youthful exuberance to these two as well as a touch of mischief. No dancing is permitted in church, but when good music is playing, sometimes it can't be helped. Cathryn Lass' simple set design and Gregory Hiatt's costumes create a charming environment for this group of characters.
And while there is exaggeration in the performances and it would have been easy to make the country characters caricatures, director Bill Thiesen instills a simple honesty to Smoke on the Mountain that is as thought-provoking as it is funny. One wouldn't expect to find a spiritual message in a story about a June bug in your lemonade, but it's there.
Performances of Smoke on the Mountain run through November 4th.