Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Theater review: Smoke on the Mountain at Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne
Smoke on the Mountain is a fun romp through a lovable and slightly dysfunctional family gospel concert.
Each theatre seems to have certain types of pieces for which they are known. One does family friendly, another shows by youth for youth, this one is known for high production values, while that one is known for doing the gay plays. For the Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne the Smoke series should be considered a staple. The Smoke trilogy is one of the most frequently produced community shows around, on the same level as Pump Boys and Dinettes, or the Forever Plaid series. It's a jukebox show, in this case of gospel music, which when combined with minimal technical needs makes it a low cost production with high end grosses.
There are those who would think that a gospel revue would be too churchy, judgmental, or otherwise not suited to their theatrical tastes. The Smoke series is undeniably Christian but is neither confrontational nor condemning. The characters in Smoke on the Mountain (playing through September 10), namely the Sanders Family Singers, and the Rev. Oglethorpe are dynamic creations that captivate beyond singing.
Their personal stories and relationships are equal parts of the story, and often color the songs performed. Punctuated by monologues that are motivational as well as historically interesting, the book balances well the singing as well as the speaking. Expect the usual church announcements, town busy bodies, and small town bickering, all amusing for anyone who has attended a small town church. For those still uncertain, if the music of Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou is enjoyable, then this will be, too.
Set in the Great Depression (with ironic similarities to now) the Sanders Family arrives at the Mt. Pleasant Baptist church where a young preacher still earning the respect of his congregation has invited them to perform. The Sanders vehicle flips over en route to the church, and the Rev. stalls a bit for time. Eventually the family shows up and between various solos, trios, and group numbers the family introduces themselves to the audience through various anecdotes.
In the Plaza production a few things are different from the scripted piece. First, instead of playing their own instruments there is a pit made up of "cousins" costumed and interacting with the cast. Plaza usually uses tracked music for their larger musicals but this live sound is quite good. It also frees up the cast to be able to perform without having to hide behind an instrument all evening, making more elaborate staging possible. Also, two church ladies have been added to the cast that are referred to in the script. Sitting in one corner they react and occasionally provoke reactions during the show adding another layer of audience interaction. The audience in the show is treated like the congregation so expect interaction throughout the night.
JaceSon Barrus' set design uses foam church windows and random planks attached to the walls to establish the inside of the church. A painted wood floor has a few benches and stools ready for the singers to enter. In one corner a piano overlooks the proceedings - a simple and effective design that quickly establishes an accurate location.
The show begins with the arrival of the church ladies (Taffy Geisel and Corliss Cornils) who warm up the audience and improv their way to their corner. Eyes should be kept on them throughout the show, they stay busy. The band waits in the corner as the Reverend shows up and stalls for time while establishing the time and place.
Eventually the Sanders' trickle in, explain the car accident, and the show within the show begins. A few things need to be sorted out though for logistical reasons. If the musicians are part of the family, how do they arrive early? Also, how do all of the props they use during the singing arrive ahead of time as well? For having been in a vehicle that overturned, everyone is remarkably put together, even folks whose hairdos they say have been ruined. In their rush to the church, how does everyone find time to primp? Also, everyone seems to know exactly where they are going and doing when they arrive; odd for a place they've never been to before.
Kevin Poole is the father of the Sanders clan. His Burl Sanders is genial and warm, a man determined to live by his principals even when it makes things harder. Poole 's vocals are solid and there is a believable chemistry between he and his wife Vera, played by Darcy Farrington.
Farrington maintains the lovable stern qualities of Vera Sanders but is not afraid to let her have moments of awkwardness or surprise. She is able to discipline her kids with a snap and a look, and has all the credibility of the mother that should not be crossed. Farrington has most of the ballads in the piece and delivers them with a simple honesty and heart that is very moving, and grounds the show in the sincerity of the music.
As the rebellious brother Stanley, JaceSon Barrus manages to sulk, smirk, and sing supportively with his family. Barrus has many moments of shtick with the Rev. who has become infatuated with some of the Sanders ladies. Stanley is the one who is redeemed in each show, showing the most regret for past transactions.
Playing the twins (at this performance) are Kasi Hollowell and Andrew Guzman as Denise and Dennis. Denise is starting to become the rebellious teen, as much as one can in the late 1930s. Hollowell succeeds in capturing not only Denise's innocence, but her growing confidence and ambition without resorting to cliché. Her solo singing is good as well. As Dennis, Andrew Guzman captures the shyness and nervousness of the insecure boy with a solid physical character. He looks down, stoops, and maintains a nervous face. When Dennis breaks out, it's fun but Guzman smartly takes Dennis back to his less secure state for a realistic character.
As the Rev. Oglethorpe, Jonathan Metting brings to life a quirky, enthusiastic, goof. Metting's facial expressions accurately capture the youthful effusiveness of the character even when relegated to watching large portions of the show from the sidelines. His comedic timing delivers many great moments of awkward revelation.
Lastly, as June Sanders the non-singing sister, Camille Shaw earns many well deserved laughs. June uses a partially made up sign language to translate the performance for the hearing impaired. With lots of percussive props, Shaw slips in and out of numbers, giddily signing and mugging away to get the attention or goat of any of her family present. She has an easy chemistry with her sister and mother, and her physical character serves her antics well.
Kara Barnes' costumes are period appropriate with suits for the men, and dresses for the ladies. The twins are in matching denim and red, a nice touch. Even the musicians in the pit are dressed up. Cameron Barrus and William Young's light design is basic but effective. A basic wash serves most of the show but sly shifts into area isolation with subtle color shifts highlight the serious portions of the evening without being obtrusive.
Music Director Cheri Dee Mega has done a great job preparing the cast for this performance. The harmonies are tight, voices clear, and diction good. Howard Geisel has a fun fiddle solo in the middle of one number; it would be nice to hear solos from the others as well.
Smoke on the Mountain is a fun romp through a lovable and slightly dysfunctional family gospel concert. Many of the cast have been in Smoke productions before and are therefore able to slip into these characters quite easily. This helps the "family" really have a believable dynamic even with new cast members. If any quibbles are to be found, it is that sometimes the hijinks garner such laughs that the songs sometimes get lost in the fun.
Bringing up the sound levels of the singing would help compensate for the audience laughter, especially for those who really want to hear the music. While the director note hints that this may be the last Smoke production for quite some time, it would be worth the trip to see what show has helped put this theater on the map.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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