Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In their first production of the 2002 Season, La Comedia Dinner Theatre in Springboro, Ohio brings back a crowd favorite with a fully satisfying presentation of Smoke On The Mountain.
Set in the 1930s, this musical tale introduces the singing Sanders family, who perform their traditional and bluegrass gospel songs for the members of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, NC. Pastor Oglethorpe welcomes the family to the church, where their individual stories and beliefs are shared during the concert. The audience serves as the members of the congregation.
The score of Smoke on the Mountain consists of almost thirty gospel tunes, all of which could have been performed at the time by such a group. There is a pleasant mixture of energetic rousing numbers, plaintive hymns, and soulful praise songs. The songs vary from the well known, such as "Amazing Grace" and "I'll Fly Away," to the more obscure ones, such as "Filling Station" and "Christian Cowboy".
The story, conceived by Alan Bailey and written by Connie Ray, is an extremely well rendered one. Rather than just a concert of old-time Christian hymns, Smoke On The Mountain is truly a musical. The characters are well developed and realistic, there is sufficient back story, and the dialogue is never trite. Many of the songs supply further clarification or reinforcement of the book and personal stories provided. The presentation of the characters' faith and beliefs is inspiring and personal, yet never preachy.
La Comedia has assembled an exceptionally strong cast for this production. As Burl, the patriarch of the family, Robert Bales sings confidently and is convincing as the leader of this group who has overcome a number of obstacles within their lives. Leslie Jo Bissett sings strongly, and though appropriate as Burl's wife Vera, comes of as somewhat cartoonish at times. The most beautiful singing in the show comes from Jenny Fellner. Her soaring and pure voice is a wonderful complement to her genuine portrayal of the youngest daughter Denise. Jeff Meyer sings well and is believable as her shy twin brother Dennis. As Burl's brother Stanley, Don Meehan is fully acceptable as the prodigal sinner who has come home, in a role that appears to be slightly underwritten. Amy Walker steals many scenes as the singing-challenged daughter June. Through her sometimes less than accurate sign language that she provides for each song, as well as some very funny dialogue, the character contributes very effective comic relief and Ms. Walker is exactly on the money with her winning portrayal. Rounding out the cast is Garry Hess as Reverend Oglethorpe. Mr. Hess likewise is very humorous as the timid and eccentric pastor. Each performer does extremely well at adding depth to their roles. In addition to the fine acting and singing, each cast member also demonstrates additional skills by providing their own accompaniment. Every performer plays multiple instruments (some as many as four or five), including the piano, fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and many others.
Eric Johnson serves as director and music director for the production and deserves praise. Without the benefit of choreography (since dancing wasn't allowed at such events at that time and place), Mr. Johnson oversees the fluid and well-paced movement and delivery of the material effectively.
The set design consisting of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church by Matthew J. Evans is attractive and realistic. The costumes, as supplied by Jane Sizemore and Jody Williams, are suitable and nice looking as well.
Smoke On the Mountain is a somewhat surprisingly entertaining show. Due to strong direction and a wonderful cast, La Comedia does a very fine job with this production. The show continues through March 10, 2002 and tickets can be ordered online at www.lacomedia.com or by phone at 1-800-677-9505.