BWW Review: SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN at Marietta's New Theatre In The Square
Smoke on the Mountain, a homespun musical conceived by Alan Bailey with a book by Connie Ray and musical arrangements by Mike Carver and Mark Hardwick, has enjoyed long runs in numerous theatres worldwide since its premiere in 1988. And it's also racked up some fairly significant critical praise. While both of these facts should be surprising given that the dental floss-thin plot and the Southern caricature-characters are nothing more than conduits for the long catalogue of gospel hymns that make up the bulk of the show, there's something infectious about it that leaves us willing to tap our toes and clap our hands. That's certainly true for the audience at Marietta's New Theatre in the Square on Saturday evening. They clapped, stomped, and offered up eager, full-bodied "Amen"s in response to Emil Thomas's lively and earnest staging of the musical.
Smoke on the Mountain tells the story of a Saturday night gospel sing at a small town Baptist church in 1938. The maIn Focus of the gospel sing is a special appearance by the Sanders Family, an offbeat group of traveling gospel singers. Over the course of the musical, each of the guest singers shares a testimonial with the congregation that reveals some little truth about God's love and the power of faith.
The production is not well-sung. Most of the songs are quite pitchy. Honestly, though, that didn't seem to matter a bit to Saturday's audience whose collective positive response seemed to suggest that poor singing pops up from time to time in small town Baptist churches. In addition, many of the songs became sing-a-long anyways as folks in the audience were moved to join in.
Thomas's casting clearly favors good acting over good singing. In particular, Liza Montgomery Maxwell, playing the non-singing daughter, June, who makes her main contribution to the group as a sign language interpreter, is a joy to watch. Whether or not Maxwell's hilarious gestures actually do the job of presenting the words in sign language is anybody's guess, but she sells it like cold beer at a Braves game in July. Another standout, Anjil Jeter, playing the role of Vera Sanders, amply showcases her excellent comedic timing, especially as she reveals to the congregation how having a June bug drown in your lemonade is a lot like being a Christian.
At the beginning of the evening, the proprietor of the theatre (his words, not mine) made an impassioned appeal for the "congregation" to participate. And they did. They really did. I've often heard it said that theatre has the power to move people. This earnest production realized that goal. Both literally and figuratively.