First things first – if you’ve never seen this show, throw away any ideas you might have about what it’ll be like. I know the title of this article probably isn’t helping with eliminating your preconceived notions, but Limelight Theatre’s production of Smoke on the Mountain is so much more than just gospel songs and sermons. Before we get to that though, here are the basics – Smoke on the Mountain is the story of the Sanders Family, who perform after a five year hiatus at a 1938 Saturday Night Gospel Sing in a little country church in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Throw in two dozen bluegrass songs, a mandolin (along with a bevy of other instruments), an enthusiastic young preacher, and a couple of elderly church ladies, and the tableau is complete.
But I guess that isn’t really true. Because this tableau is more than just a group of singers and their gospel comeback. Directed by Matthew Whaley, it’s surprisingly fast-paced, full of delightful and magnetic characters, witty banter, a whole lot of pickles, and a few well-placed come-to-Jesus moments. And of course, enough bluegrass to satisfy anyone.
Let’s start with our charismatic young preacher, though, who is determined to take this little country church “into the modern world” with a Saturday Night Sing. Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe (Brian Matthews) can spout Bible verses with the best of them, and his enthusiasm for the music and the performance draws the crowd in from the moment he steps up to the lectern to start the show. Brian Matthews is absolutely delightful and perfectly captures the heart of a young Baptist preacher (a character who, if you’re from the South, you’ve definitely encountered before). He’s exactly what the show needs to both reign in the Sanders family’s antics and occasionally take part in them.
After a little comical hemming and hawing from the preacher (who is making excuses for performers who are running late), June Sanders (Katie Timoney) rushes in with apologies and an unusual story for their lateness. The Sanders family’s van turned over when they pulled off the road to look at the pickles that were floating down the river from the pickle factory upstream. That should be your first clue that this show isn’t entirely what it seems. With this odd story as her intro, June proves to be one of the standout characters in the family. Instead of singing, June signs for the deaf. Her inexpert, inaccurate, and over-the-top signing consistently steals scenes, and Katie Timoney has perfect timing. She’ll be one of your favorites.
Burl and Vera Sanders (Michael Lagasse and Shelli Long) along with their twins Dennis and Denise (Christopher Makauskas and Sylvia Muchmore) and Burl’s former-criminal brother, Stanley (Brian Johnson) make up a talented but motley crew. In an ensemble show like this one, it would be easy for the characters to kind of run together. But each actor has dug down to the heart of their character and given them distinctive personalities that never waver, even when they’re spending time in the background.
All things considered, though, this is a musical show, so I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the songs that are so frequent. Michael Lagasse, who switches from guitar to upright bass to mandolin and back again, Brian Johnson, whose finger-picking on the guitar is mesmerizing, Shelli Long, who spends much of the show behind the piano, and Kim Zielinski (playing cousin Mildred), who can fiddle with the best of them, make the show stand out among the rest. Their instrumentation seems to never miss a note and their talent is really quite enchanting.
The voices of all the cast are charming, and each song will transport you to the gospel-loving backroads of the Appalachians. Interspersed throughout the songs are little moments of witness from each member of the family. Now don’t start to think that you’re just going to get preached at for an hour and a half. Though these moments are heartfelt, poignant, and filled with significance, they’re also entertaining and delivered with quick wit and timing. And since this show is performed in the black box, not on the mainstage, the audience is drawn into their words as they wander into the crowd. We sit listening and laughing, like that country church congregation.
This show certainly speaks in a special voice to the lovers of bluegrass and the attendees of Southern country churches, but it really is a show that can entertain and delight anyone. So cast off your assumptions, and settle in for some serious laughs and some soulful songs.
Smoke on the Mountain is on Limelight Theatre’s stage Thursday, June 13 through Saturday, June 15; Wednesday, June 19 through Saturday June, 22; and Tuesday, June 25 through Thursday June, 27 at 7:30pm. There will be 2pm matinees on June 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29.
All adult tickets are $26. Tickets are available at www.limelight-theatre.org or by calling 904.825.1164. Photography by Sharon Friedes.