Review: Presented in the Perfect Setting, Studio Tenn's SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN Will Revive Your Spirit

Everett Tarlton Directs An Ensemble of Nashville Theatre Favorites

By: Mar. 29, 2023

Review: Presented in the Perfect Setting, Studio Tenn's SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN Will Revive Your Spirit

It was in Fall 1995 that I first was introduced to the gospel singing Sanders Family of "up near Siler City, North Carolina," in a production of Smoke on the Mountain at Nashville's venerable Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre.

In 2023, the family returns again, as if by magic or perhaps accompanied by flights of angels, in a warmly nostalgic, sweetly sentimental and altogether lovely production from Studio Tenn -- playing through April 2 -- at the historic sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church in downtown Franklin, which stands in quite nicely for the First Baptist Church of Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, on a Saturday night in 1938.

With a book by Connie Ray, from a concept by Alan Bailey, with musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, and staged by theater companies both large and small, over 28 years I've seen numerous iterations of the musical (from Chaffin's Barn to Cumberland County Playhouse and countless theater venues in between) that I know I am guaranteed a down-home good time. Smoke on the Mountain is one of those shows that renders so many memories from my own childhood that I can instantly imagine myself surrounded by the kind and generous people of a small-town Baptist Church in West Tennessee, surprised by the impact of my emotional and visceral reaction even as I know what to expect going in.

In addition, I've had the pleasure of witnessing the talents of so many theater artists portraying the Sanderses that I can scarcely remember them individually (although the most memorable Veras have included Carol Ponder, Amanda Lamb, Lauren Marshall and now the inimitable Megan Murphy Chambers). Rather, they tend to blend together in memories both sentimental and nostalgic. So genuine, so very real to me are they that these "people" -- Burl and Vera, the loving parents, their children June, Dennis and Denise, and Burl's brother Stanley -- feel like old friends, and it's easy to forget that they are actually characters created for the stage. Yet they are, in fact, created from so many Southerners who've spent so many hours in so many churches around the region...well, since Jesus was a boy.

The Sanders Family might even be described as archetypes of the Southern evangelical family, so it's easy to be reminded of someone to remind you of your own family: Burl is the type of father who might best be described as a "good man," while Vera epitomizes every Southern Baptist matriarch who has ever specialized in the type of meal that nurtures every last person at a "Sunday dinner on the ground." Daughter June reminds me of my sisters: compassionate, kind and funny. The twins - Dennis (he's the boy) and Denise (she's the girl) - remind me of a pair of twins from my first grade class, and Uncle Stanley (a good-hearted fellow if there ever was one), whose affable nature is sure to elicit memories of a favorite uncle. And, good lord, Rev. Oglethorpe is like every enthusiastic man of the cloth who has ever stood behind a pulpit.

Review: Presented in the Perfect Setting, Studio Tenn's SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN Will Revive Your Spirit
Melissa Silengo as June Sanders

Directed with equal parts humor, humility, grace and theatricality by Everett Tarlton, Studio Tenn's revival of Smoke On the Mountain, adds yet another feather to the cap of the Franklin-based professional theater company. Never before has Smoke on the Mountain been in a more perfect setting than the beautifully serene and historic sanctuary of Franklin First Methodist (which was founded in 1799). The building's acoustics, augmented by Mark Zuckerman's superb sound design, provide the right amount of "churchiness" that ensures the play's message of love, hope, charity, forgiveness and redemption is profoundly felt.

Geoff Smith's music direction is ideal for the show's score of gospel songs and church hymns (although some tunes are of more recent vintage, they nonetheless add to the charm of Smoke on the Mountain), and he winningly accompanies the onstage actor/musicians on the piano.

Galen Fott's warmly paternal performance as Burl leads the cast with benevolence and authority and conducts the family's hilarity and hijinks that ensue over two-and-a-half hours with finesse. Matthew Carlton, easily one of Nashville theatre's most prolific and beloved performers, creates an Uncle Stanley who exudes familial love and earns respect in the process.

Review: Presented in the Perfect Setting, Studio Tenn's SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN Will Revive Your Spirit
Douglas Waterbury-Tieman as Dennis Sanders

Melissa Silengo, as the non-singing June Sanders, puts her estimable talents on full display, delivering what is a deliciously spirited comic performance that never once goes over-the-top. As the twins, Charlotte Myhre Shealey is terrific as Denise and when she is given her moment at center stage (or center altar, more like) she keeps attention riveted to her well-conceived portrayal. Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, the multi-talented actor/musician/playwright and composer, is a terrific Dennis, easily exuding the character's shyness at one moment, then bringing the house down with evangelistic fervor the next.

Curtis Reed, yet another one of the region's most versatile and adept actors, plays the oftentimes overbearing Rev. Oglethorpe with a sincerity that is certain to win over the audience's affections by the time the plate is passed around for the love offering.

Review: Presented in the Perfect Setting, Studio Tenn's SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN Will Revive Your Spirit
Megan Murphy Chambers as Vera Sanders

Finally, as the family matriarch, Megan Murphy Chambers delivers yet another commanding performance, one that is made more compelling by her deft blend of humor, pathos and motherly concern. Is there anything this amazing actor cannot do or any character she cannot play? So far, during her storied career on local stages, she has shown so much versatility and aplomb that any role can find its place in her wheelhouse. In Murphy Chambers' Vera, I was able to see glimpses of virtually every strong and loving Southern woman with whom I've come in contact in my lifetime.

Lauren Terry-McCall's costumes for the actors are picture-perfect clothes from the 1930s that most assuredly help them find their characters, and Marlee Shelton's period-appropriate props are noteworthy. Landy Fink and Jade Moreno, the production's wig stylists, make certain that the women of the ensemble look like they just stepped out of a small-town beauty shop in some good Christian woman's house.

Review: Presented in the Perfect Setting, Studio Tenn's SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN Will Revive Your Spirit You might think, after almost 28 years since that first production I saw in 1995 (and with my church-going days pretty much over -- except for when there is a new revival of Smoke on the Mountain, A Sanders Family Christmas or Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming to review), I might grow tired of the show. Yet, somehow I always am able to find my spirit revived by the Sanders Family, leaving me to wonder if my faith might even be restored after I leave their presence. There's just something about these characters, their stories and their songs that tug at my heart and remind me of so many people - my people -- I love who are no longer with us on this temporal plane. And with childlike wonder, I can almost believe again.

Smoke on the Mountain. Book by Connie Ray. Conceived by Alan Bailey. Musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick. Directed by Everett Tarlton. Musical direction by Geoff Smith. Staged managed by Cecilia Lighthall. Presented by Studio Tenn at The Historic Sanctuary of The First United Methodist Church, Franklin. Through April 2. For further details, go to www.studiotenn.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with a 15-minute intermission).



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