Smoke on the Mountain

Renaissance Theatre is running the fun bluegrass musical, Smoke on the Mountain, for only two more shows this weekend.  The music is impressive, and the singing and jokes add up to a fun evening.

Smoke on the Mountain is the story of a six-member family of blue-grass religious singers in the 1930s in the Appalachians, who have been invited to sing and witness at a small local church.  The audience for the play is the congregation at the service.  Most of the show is their music, with the family accompanying themselves on their instruments, and performing a slew of old-time songs.  Interspersed occasionally, members of the family take turns “witnessing”, and providing a Christian message to the audience.  And overlain on top of the whole thing is silly antics, accompanied by a laugh track from the audience.  This is a very difficult show to cast, if a production is going to get the most out of the show.  Not only do you need good actors who can connect to the audience on a very direct level, but you also need at least five people with beautiful singing voices, and who can play instruments well.  An extra difficulty is that these are not your “normal” band or orchestra instruments–this is bluegrass, which means banjo, fiddle, upright bass, mandolin, and guitar.  The strength of the script lies in the fact that you can still put on an entertaining show, even if the cast doesn’t quite have all those skills.

This production by Renaissance Theatre is at its best when the music is playing, which is most of the time.  All the required instruments are present, and there are times when the music is truly impressive.  Not everyone in the cast is really a musician, but those that aren’t were taught enough to fake it well on a few songs apiece.  No one in the cast has a truly impressive singing voice, but no one is horrible either.  They blend well, and sound very real and natural, providing what is likely an authentic look at everyday bluegrass groups in 1930s Appalachia.  Most the performers aren’t really connecting with the audience, but that may have been partly because the house area is pitch-black during the performance, making it hard for the cast to SEE their congregation.  Many of the comedic bits come across as forced, but sometimes the humorous moments appear natural and are quite funny.  Overall, even if it isn’t quite everything it could be, it is still quite an entertaining couple of hours.

There was apparently no director for this show, with Karen Lynn helping out as the “acting coach” instead.  Either way, a little more could have been done to flesh out the characters, and make them more natural and real.  What we get between the music is a little over-the-top, most of the time.  When the music isn’t playing, the action gets a little forced, but when the songs are happening, the show is very relaxed and comfortable, and quite enjoyable.

Kelly Lynn, as the Sanders-clan patriarch, “Burl”; Joni Boulet, as the matriarch, “Vera”; Chad Hastings, as Burl’s brother “Stanley”; and Elizabeth Boulet, as the younger daughter, “Denise”, are all impressive musicians, each performing on multiple instruments, and appearing to hande them all with ease.  Even though Paul Boulet, as the son, “Dennis”, isn’t really a musician, he does a nice job of keeping up with them occasionally on the bass or mandolin with some easy fingerings.  Probably the most “instruments” are played by Tanja Miller, as the non-musical older sister, “June”, who helps out with percussion effects on a suitcase-full of devices.

But June’s real purpose in the show is to provide the comedic relief, which Miller nails.  “June” is the non-singing member of the family (though she does sing in one song, and does fine, which makes that whole “non-singer” characterization seem odd), but instead contributes by providing sign-language interpretations of the songs for the hard-of-hearing.  The hilarity results from the fact that “June” doesn’t know a bit of real sign language.  Miller keeps the chuckles coming throughout the show, and earns the majority of laughs, as she should.

Henry Thompson, as “Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe” does a fine job playing the pastor of this small congregation.  It is quite apparent that Oglethorpe isn’t quite sure what he has unleashed on his flock when he invited this family to take over the service.  Every member of the family takes turns witnessing to the audience, and these all have nice messages.  The best, however, are from Hastings (“Stanley”) and Boulet (“Vera”).  Hastings’ story about serving on a chain gang comes across as very real and gritty, and we can totally believe this character had that experience.  Boulet’s “children’s sermon” about a Junebug is quite funny and natural, and probably the moment in the show with the best connection to the audience, even before she pulls people onstage to assist her.

The technical elements are simple, as they should be for this show.  No electronic amplification is used for anything, but everything sounds great in the small performance space.  The set is a plain representation of a small, country church, and the costumes have the right looks for the period and characters.  The only noticeable technical flaw was in the limited lighting instruments available, which cast some glaring dark spots on the stage, occasionally hiding an actor’s face.

While there are better productions of Smoke on the Mountain out there, this is still an enjoyable, relaxing evening, with some impressive music-playing, and quite a few laughs.  Apparently, this is the last production to be mounted in Renaissance Theatre’s downstairs “Alpha Stage”, and there are only two more performances left.  Tickets are going fast, so don’t wait to buy your ticket at the door.  This reviewer ended up sitting on the steps to the light booth, so get your tickets early.  Show times and ticket information can be found here.

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