BWW Review: SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN's Sentimental Journey at Chaffin's Barn
Theater's power to transform and transport is astonishing and the capability of artists to create a sense of time and place, with words and music and theatrical wizardry to lend a tangible feeling to the experience can leave you breathless. Who'd have ever thought that such thrilling artistry, the very magic of make believe, could be so vividly expressed, so awesomely felt in two hours spent in a backwoods Southern church on a Saturday night in 1938? But that's exactly what happens in Smoke on the Mountain, Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's evocative, down-home musical thaT Lovingly takes its audiences back home again in ways not even Thomas Wolfe may ever have imagined.
For, in just over two hours on a Saturday night at Nashville's venerable and iconic Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre in 2017, I was taken back home in such a way that I am still captivated by days after the experience - and some quarter of a century since I first took that gospel-tinged sentimental journey home. Evoking memories of Southern life in simpler days gone by, Smoke on the Mountain may be reminiscent of your own youth, no matter your vintage, with the voices of people you have loved and lost echoing through the gentle and plaintive strains of timeless gospel songs and church hymns that reverberate through your heart.
Director Martha Wilkinson's exquisite ensemble of actors who so vividly bring the characters in the homespun musical to life (many of them returning from earlier productions of shows in the Sanders Family oeuvre) are so engaging, their stories so accessible, that you cannot help but embrace them as you would members of your own family - and that explains the universal appeal of Smoke on the Mountain. Daron Bruce as father Burl Sanders, Amanda Lamb (who shares the role of matriarch Vera Sanders with the estimable LaDarra Jackal), and Jaclyn Lisenby Brown as Denise - "she's the girl" - (in her final role at the Barn before she and her family move to New York for amazing new opportunities and challenges) return to roles that have helped them to win legions of loyal fans over the years at the Barn, while Scott Stewart, Melissa Silengo and Curtis LeMoine (all three well-known in local theater circles) are joined by newcomer Will Pope onstage in what can only be described as a down-home good time.
As sweetly satisfying as a Sunday dinner on the ground at the churches of your youth and as heartbreakingly genuine as any family reunion you recall from past memories, Smoke on the Mountain provides a surprisingly moving and emotional segue from this summer's critically lauded Sister Act and which will yield to a disco-fueled trip back in time courtesy of the upcoming Mamma Mia! And while on paper those three shows seem disparate and disconnected, perhaps, at least for me it seems wonderfully apropos and well-suited to the life and times I've lived over the past six decades.
Musical theater amazes me every day of my life and the winning efforts of talented individuals to bring these shows to life inspire me in innumerable ways as I make my way through the years. What I find most remarkable is how the words and music in Smoke on the Mountain made me feel truly and deeply at home. As someone who never feels grounded yet somehow uplifted so much as when I'm in a darkened theater, Daron, Amanda, Jaclyn and company made me feel as if the kind and god-fearing people of the First Baptist Church of Bethel Springs were surrounding me with love once again, anchoring me with a sense of belonging long thought abandoned. For someone who's uncertain about his faith to the point of not believing in much of anything, it's an emotional experience that took me completely unawares.
Yet one scene in Smoke on the Mountain drives home the point to me that we are all the product of our upbringing and that no matter how far away you get from hearth and home, the things you were taught as a child are still somewhere deep within you. I remember the 1995 production of Smoke at Chaffin's Barn with much affection, Carol Ponder's portrayal of Vera Sanders etched in my memory. That production came a few weeks after my father's death and when the first words of "Life is Like a Mountain Railway" were sung back then my body was flooded with an overwhelming sense of mournful loss and the recognition that my heart wasn't made of stone. That song, you see, was played at my father's funeral and it filled me with emotion to hear it performed.
Last Saturday night, when Will Pope (as Dennis - "he's the boy") began to sing the song my heart was once again filled with such emotion that I didn't know if I would make it through the rest of the show. For a moment, my mind was filled with thoughts of home, missing my parents and wishing I could see the faces of all those fine people who watched me grow up while ensuring I never faltered. In short, I felt like I was back in church and although I have no clue what I believe in anymore, I was filled with that sense of belonging and purpose that I may have lost somewhere along the way.
How remarkable is that? How unrelentingly hopeful is that? The power of theater and the ability of talented people to whisk you away to some other time and place is heartrendingly powerful. And for that alone, you simply cannot miss Smoke on the Mountain.
In fact, I could sit at my desk and reel off a multitude of reasons you should see the show, to recount the images that remain fresh in my mind and to heap praise upon Martha and her actors (see, I felt so much at home that I'm referring to everyone by first names now) for taking me on a sentimental journey, giving me reason to recall so many names and faces in my past - and I suspect they can do the same for you. So, go. I implore you to go.
In these times, these mighty troubled times, a night with the Sanders Family may be exactly what you need to get you through. It sure worked for me.
Smoke on the Mountain. Written by Connie Ray. Conceived by Alan Bailey. Musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville. Running through August 19. For tickets, call (615) 646-9977 or go to www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com for details. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission)