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BWW Reviews: Candlelight Pavilion Brings Back Crowd-Pleasing SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN

BWW Reviews: Candlelight Pavilion Brings Back Crowd-Pleasing SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN

Smoke on the Mountain/written by Connie Ray/conceived by Alan Bailey/musical arrangements of old hymns by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick/directed by John LaLonde/musical direction by Marius Beltran/at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, Claremont/through May 10

Satire on religion can be fun to watch. Take The Book of Mormon, for example, with its ferocious attack on innocence and man-made intervention. On a much smaller scale, Smoke on the Mountain is an intimate up close theatrical experience that comes to life via its bluegrass-style gospel musical numbers. Some of the stories as told by the Sanders family, a group of traveling singers/musicians, who perform a one-night gig circa 1938 at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Mount Pleasant, North Carolina are wrenchingly funny. In a well-directed and very well-cast revival at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, Smoke on the Mountain becomes a real audience pleasing entertainment.

Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe (Jason Webb) invites the Sanders family to his Baptist church to try to bring the congregation - most of us are familiar with how stern, strict and Bible scripture-oriented Baptists are - into a more modern way of thinking. As perfect as they try to present themselves, the Sanders family are high on imperfections. They all possess human frailties which make them less than exemplary Christian models. Eventually through their earnest attempts to talk sincerely about themselves and to sing and move up a storm, though, they win over the audience, which serves as the congregation. The Sanders include Papa Burl (David Kirk Grant), mother Vera (Jennifer Wilcove), Uncle Stanley (Andrew Orbison), daughter June (Renna Nightingale) and twin siblings Denise and Dennis (Kim Dalton and Andrew Wade). Burl has owned a filling station which is going under due to fierce competition from another station that sells beer. As a tea-totler Christian, how can he compete? So, it's back to singing. After a five-year absence from the road, this is their very first gig. Uncle Stanley has had some problems with the law and only recently came back to the family, June has a whole mess of personal problems - she can't sing, so she signs instead, but not following ASL American Sign Language...instead a Godawful program of her own misguided invention. Denise longs to be an actress - she even went to an open call for extras for Gone with the Wind and met David O. Selznick. Act and be a good Christian? Ugh! Dennis has his own hangups but still desires to be a minister. It's a motley group who tell some ridiculously funny stories and then combine musical talents to form a colorful bluegrass orchestra, with guitar, bass, banjo and even including harmonica and a washboard. Oglethorpe eventually chimes in on the accordian.

The cast under John LaLonde's smooth direction are all vibrantly talented. Each has his shining moment in the spotlight. One of the funniest is Wilcove as mother Vera when she talks about a June bug falling aimlessly into her lemonade. She then proceeds to make a little allegory about one kind of bug that has no direction and another who hangs from a thread woven by Jesus - "a thread to the backlegs of our souls". You have to see her re-enactment of it to appreciate the craziness. Nightingale as June has many hysterical moments as she signs the musical numbers in gawdy,, out.of.control fashion.

Act I as is is a very slow setup and things do not really cook until Act II in which the musical hymns take off. Oglethorpe joins the band - "if you can't lick 'em, join em!" This is not one of my most favorite shows, but I do admire the direction, cast and music execution that prove diverting... sometimes exhilarating. Someone noted, on the plus side, it's not preachy, and the people are innocents, suffering from relatable issues. In fact, when they first enter the church we are told that they miraculously survived a bus accident on the way.

You have to keep your eyes riveted to all the characters whether or not they are performing center stage. There are some terrific moments of seduction between Ogelthorpe and June. They really connect while sitting behind as the others sing and play. Passion for living, passion for music, passion for family, passion for Jesus; they all equate. Like the title song says, "There's smoke on the mountain and fire in their hearts."

Some hymns are familiar like "Rock of Ages" and "Bringing in the Sheaves". Most are not but when played are upbeat and provide fun-filled listening. Excellent set design of the parrish hall stage is credited to Chuck Ketter and Colleen Bresnahan.

As always the dinner and service at Candlelight are the best. Servers are warm, friendly and helpful. Food is always succulent, especially the Bollinger cut of the tri-tip roast. Special $6 drinks for this engagement include: Wildwood Martini, The Pleasant Sangria and Summerime Coffee.

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From This Author Don Grigware