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Hand Clapping, Heart Pumping, Soul Singing: MSMT & Portland Stage Present SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN

Sixth Co-Production for MSMT & Portland Stage

Hand Clapping, Heart Pumping, Soul Singing: MSMT & Portland Stage Present SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN

For its sixth co-production since 2016, Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage have joined forces to present a hand clapping, heart pumping, soul singing production of the gospel-bluegrass musical, SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN. Folksy, funny, and full of life, this seven-person cast of actor-musicians delivers an evening of touching and appealing entertainment.

Set in 1938, the story focuses on the Sanders family, whose performance at a Saturday night sing at a North Carolina Baptist church takes some humorous and poignant twists and turns, as the performers and minister share their stories, each giving witness in traditional evangelical manner, but finding that their revelations are less flashes from the divine and more truth-telling from within their psyches.

Conceived by Alan Bailey, with a book by Connie Ray and musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN had its off-Broadway premiere in 1990. The score features twenty-five traditional gospel hymns interspersed with a few bluegrass songs, and the seven ensemble members demonstrate their versatility by playing twenty-four Instruments ranging from guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and a wide array of percussion.

Jeff Stockberger directs the piece with a deft hand, demonstrating a tongue-in-cheek humor and guiding the actors to find some emotional gold in their individual monologues.

Music Director Andrew Crowe succeeds admirably at the complex task of bringing all the musical threads together into one coherent, rich tapestry. The instrumental sound is pleasantly acoustic, by turns intimate or rousing, while the singers cover a wide vocal range and harmonize in catchy and compelling ways.

The physical production makes admirable use of Portland Stage's space. Anita Stewart (Meg A. Anderson, Props) designs the evocative set - a rural church interior, consisting of pale, rustic wood walls, leaded Gothic windows, simple pews and pulpit. Her palette of light beige with dark wood accents is complemented by Kathleen Payton Brown's period costumes in earth tones and country prints that capture the country flair. Lighting Designer Jamie Grant wraps the décor in a warm, evening glow that radiates a kind of inner light, while Sound Designer Chris Fitze balances the vocal, instrumental, and spoken with ease. Meg Lydon anchors the production as Stage Manager.

The seven-person cast proves to be a virtuoso company, musically talented and dramatically appealing. As Rev. Oglethorpe, John Vessels, Jr. is endearingly maladroit and warm-hearted, and he evidences a big, strong vocal presence in numbers like "Jesus Is Mine" and "Angel Band." Larry Tobias, as the Sanders patriarch Burl, is all straightforward seriousness, while April Lee Uzarski plays his wife Vera with sly humor - outwardly pious to the point of disapproval, until she reveals her own repressed and confusing definitions of sin and salvation in her amusing monologue about June bugs.

Hand Clapping, Heart Pumping, Soul Singing: MSMT & Portland Stage Present SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN Andrew Crowe makes Stanley, Burl's brother, a troubled soul whose unsparing testimony reveals a tenderness, vulnerability, and truer definition of grace. Elleon Dobias as Denise and Daniel Emond as Dennis make a charming pair as the Sanders twins. Pert and whimsical, Dobias plays the ingenue effectively and delivers her moment of self-revelation with a sweet and silly longing, and she proves a lovely vocalist in "I'll Never Die" and an engaging comedienne in "Christian Cowboy" with Edmond. His Dennis, pathologically shy to begin, emerges in a sermon where his words and song take flight. Finally, Sarah Hund, as June, the non-singing sister whose "gift" is signing, provides some of the evening's funniest and most touching moments as she exuberantly attempts her version of ASL that is hopelessly off base and yet, somehow, sweetly poetic. Contributing to the musical arrangements by playing a wide variety of percussion instruments from washboards to cowbells to triangle and tambourine, she makes each moment dramatically true. And her obvious attraction to Reverend Oglethorpe seems a match made in heaven for these two quirky characters.

By the time the cast builds to the rousing finale, beginning with a stirring rendition of "Smoke on the Mountain, " followed by a soaring "I'll Fly Away," and ending with "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," the audience has been swept into the musical fervor. There is laughter, joy, and pure delight, as the characters - in all their authenticity and honesty - celebrate the sheer beauty and breathtaking wonder of their very imperfect humanity.

Photos courtesy of Portland Stage, Mical Hutson, photographer

SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, a co-production of MSMT & Portland Stage, runs from August 2 - August 28, 2022 at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207-774-0465

From This Author - Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Born and raised in the metropolitan New York area, Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold took her degrees at Sarah Lawrence College and Fairleigh Dickinson University. She began her career as a teacher... (read more about this author)

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