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Smoke on the Mountain

Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 27.

Bijou Theatre

$12-$25. Call 877-868-8710 for reservations.

Road Show

Cumberland County Playhouse's gospel comedy plays well in the Big City

by Paige M. Travis

Producers of a show have to be pretty sure of its popularity to take it on the road. That's how many of us get to see major productions like Les Miserables, Annie Get Your Gun and Chicago: These plays do well in New York and the other big cities, so the cast packs up their stuff (or creates a touring company) and comes to a town near you. Well, Crossville isn't quite Broadway, but the Cumberland County Playhouse's production of Smoke on the Mountain is a big enough hit to come to Knoxville (and Nashville) for the second summer in a row. The play is in residence on Saturdays through July 27 at the Bijou Theatre.

I don't know exactly how many times the Playhouse has included Smoke in its season, but it's been quite a few. Patty Payne has played June Sanders for eight years, so that gives you an idea of the play's enduring popularity (as well as Payne's contribution to the show). At least half of the audience members in the packed theater raised their hands when asked if they'd seen the play before, so word-of-mouth, the Playhouse's reputation and some advertising must have brought the rest. It soon became quite clear why these folks had returned and why Smoke is so beloved.

The music is the star, and the point, of the show. The 20 gospel songs plus two medleys played on banjo, mandolin, guitar, stand-up bass and piano are simply uplifting. Of course, that's the idea: the setting is a Saturday night revival at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, N.C., in the summer of 1938. The Sanders Family has been invited to the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe's church to entertain his congregation. Their voices, sometimes joined by the Reverend when he feels the spirit, harmonize into a heavenly choir.

In addition to being musically appealing, funny and heartwarming, much of the play's appeal in this region is based on its Baptist roots. The stage setting establishes the audience as the congregation, and members laughed uproariously at all the Baptist references. They understood the pastor's eagerness to please two rich old ladies in the congregation, and they fully appreciated his apoplectic reaction to beer, dancing and card playing. Granted, you don't have to be Baptist to know that you want to please rich dowagers and dancing and drinking have been frowned upon by other churches. But that stuff's just funnier to Baptists or Methodists or other Protestants. People of other backgrounds and beliefs might not cotton to the play's religious assumptions, but they're not the main point anyway. Smoke isn't out to convert anyone, unless it's to the glorious sounds of gospel bluegrass, which can be enjoyed by people of all faiths. If the play has messages, they are basic morals we can agree on: acceptance, forgiveness and the strength of family.

More than preaching, Smoke is about eliciting laughter. Jody Cook as the preacher acts and reacts with his entire face as he listens to the music or tries to get a word in edgewise between the Sanders' songs and testimony. The Sanders family is a wacky bunch. Over the course of the revival they each have a story to tell. Sometimes scandalous, sometimes heartfelt, the stories reveal the characters as good-hearted people—even Stanley Sanders who is forgiven his trespasses in Act Two. Payne as June Sanders, the non-singing older sister who has been relegated to signing for the deaf and playing a closet-full of percussion instruments, is brilliant. With so much action on the stage, it's not a good idea to look away from her for too long. Her expressions and reactions are a constant delight. It's no wonder Payne has been playing June for so long: she owns this role.

The other cast members never let the energy lapse. Twins Denise (Casey M. Fox) and Dennis (Kaine Riggan) are complete opposites: the sister has dreams of fame, and the brother feels called to the ministry, although he's too shy to read the sermon his mother wrote for him. As Dennis gains momentum, he tells about trying to save his dog's soul from the temptation of the Devil. The hilarious scene is matched for laughs when his mother compares sinners to junebugs "drowning in the refreshments."

After having recently experienced the word acrobatics of Shakespeare and the emotional rollercoaster of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I have to forgive Smoke for being so simply enjoyable. This play (and I suspect everything the Cumberland County Playhouse does) is wholesome with only the faintest bits of conflict or edge. But it's hard to argue with the talent and popularity of the show. Even if the spiritual angle isn't your cup of tea, Smoke on the Mountain could lift you to a higher plane of bliss.

The Cumberland County Playhouse is also performing the musical Honk! a comedic retelling of the Ugly Duckling fable, on Friday nights through July 28 at the Bijou.

July 12, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 28
© 2001 Metro Pulse