Last Saturday night, my friend Dawn and I went to see “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming” as directed by Jeff Stockberger at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. Neither of us had seen the original show, also directed by Stockberger at B&B last summer. Both of us enjoyed the rich, well-balanced mixture of homespun music, storytelling, and humor in this sequel anyway.
We also agreed that this piece was like nothing we had ever seen before. The plot is simply this: It is 1945 and the Sanders Family Singers are back at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina to perform gospel favorites for the congregation (the audience) and to say goodbye to our (very quickly the audience and the characters become “we”) beloved pastor, the Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe (John Vessels) and his wife, the former June Sanders (Sarah Hund.) They are off to start a new church in Wilderado, Texas. Meanwhile, former Marine Dennis Sanders (Andrew Ross) is fresh out of seminary and terrified at the thought of trying to fill Pastor Oglethorpe’s shoes.
I don’t think I will spoil it for you if I tell you that the Oglethorpes get a grand send-off and Dennis’s confidence increases exponentially as he preaches one sermon. Because that’s it. That’s the plot. There is not a lot of dramatic tension overall.
The pleasure in this show comes not in finding out what happens but in finding out what has happened to the characters, especially since the last time we were all together. It truly is like a family reunion, with many generations of the family represented by their music, their personal storytelling (aka “witnessing”), and their humor. If you are meeting these quirky Christians for the first time, it is a pleasure to get to know them. If you met them last summer, I imagine it is a pleasure to catch up on their news. According to the press release I received, the cast is exactly the same as in last summer’s show.
Pleasure comes, too, from the comforting quality of the gospel and bluegrass music and the artistry of the inspirational storytelling, AND the fact that the music and the storytelling are given equal weight in the piece overall. That is unusual.
Pleasure also comes from the fact that the playwright, Connie Ray (concept by Alan Bailey), pokes fun at church, family, and more in a way that is always affectionate, never mean-spirited. Many parts of this show are laugh-out-loud funny – although I think one or two of the Baptist references went over this Episcopalian’s head – but you never feel guilty for laughing. That is unusual, too.
You also never feel pressured. The show is definitely an issue-free celebration of traditional Christian values, but there is no altar call and no passing of the offering plate. I am sure that the Holy Spirit often connects with people through this show, but ultimately this is a piece of entertainment, not a church service.
When the show opens, the lights come up on the pulpit end of a simple country church. A sign on the wall gives last week’s attendance (62), this week’s attendance (60), and the attendance at Sunday school (12.) There is a piano plus several other stringed instruments that range in size from a mandolin to a bass violin. A window and screen door give us glimpses into the leafy, and later star-filled, countryside beyond. (Set designed and lit by Michael Layton. Sound design by Daniel Hesselbrock. Technical direction by Bill Mollencupp. Ed Stockman and Jeff Stockberger are the stage managers.)
The Sanders trade the instruments back and forth as easily as kids trading baseball cards. Almost every Sanders member plays several instruments as well as sings. Their harmonies are lovely, especially in songs such as “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” (Musical direction by Kristy Templet. Actor Andrew Ross is also the music & vocal captain.)
The hugely pregnant oldest daughter, June, does not sing, but she does play more percussion instruments than I ever knew existed, from tambourines to tricycle spokes. When she is not percussing, she earnestly signs the family’s songs in American Sign Language…more or less. Her interpretations are a hoot. Actor Sarah Hund’s ability to communicate in this logical, consistent, and sincere but only semi-accurate way is comic genius.
June’s husband, Pastor Oglethorpe, lends his full, gorgeous voice and goofy personality to the family’s music-making. He wears cowboy boots (costumes by Terry Wood) and sings about being ready to become “a gunslinger for the Lord.”
June’s twin siblings, Denise (she’s the girl) and Dennis (he’s the boy), are grown-ups now, but when Denise’s own rascally 3-year-old twins run off instead of performing their contribution to the family’s show, Denise (Jennie Malone) and Dennis (Andrew Ross) don sparkly bow ties and reprise their own special number from childhood: they sing a duet of “We May Talk to Jesus on the Royal Telephone” and accompany themselves on a tiny piano. It is funny and charming.
We never actually get to meet Denise’s twins, nor her husband, Donny, who owns and runs Culpepper Appliances, but she makes them seem real to us through her interactions with “them” off stage. The sound of the twins’ ball banging against the side of the church speaks volumes about what a handful they are.
Vera Sanders (Pam Pendleton) and Burl Sanders (Bob Payne) ground the family. They often converse with each other using Bible references. Sometimes it is almost a competition, but I was touched when he cited a verse and then said, “Call it, Mother” and she supplied the verse itself. His story about how the Lord led him to overcome his doubts and fears about going into debt to buy their farm is the first and longest witnessing. It is serious and moving. I got a catch in my throat in spite of myself when he ended by saying “The Lord will never leave you, either.”
Vera’s story is the “children’s devotional” portion of the program. It uses visual aids and is hi-LAR-ious.
I suppose every family has a black sheep, or maybe the important point is that there is a bit of the Prodigal Son in each of us. In any case, the Sanders family has Stanley Sanders (Jayson Elliott), the son who left the group because he thought he was too good for them. At the beginning of the show he is back physically, but by the end of the show he is back emotionally and spiritually as well. His verbal and musical witnessing are quite poignant. And while no one seems to be urging him to get married, unlike the equally handsome and talented Dennis, if I really were a member of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church I’d be maneuvering to sit next to Stanley at all of the potlucks and ice cream socials.
I was surprised that no one in the audience clapped after the several wonderful instrumental solos. Maybe that was because we had bought into the illusion that we were in church. However, there were several other indications that the audience was completely engaged and enjoying the show. Someone near me started humming along with “I Love to Tell the Story.” I wanted to sing along with “Do Lord,” myself. I could see heads nodding and hands tapping on tables all over the theatre as Dennis sang an irresistibly jazzy version of “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” At the end of the show, spry audience members JUMPED to their feet while the more physically challenged heaved themselves up. Everyone wanted to give the show a standing ovation.
My friend Dawn said she wants to get a copy of the full lyrics to “Round-Up in the Sky.” We laughed out loud again in the car on the ride home, talking about being “roped in by the Lord and branded BB for Beulah Bound.” I wish I could buy a CD of the whole show. It wouldn’t be as good as hearing and seeing it again live, of course, but it would bring back the feeling of contentment that I felt as we left the theatre. Days later, I still find myself singing “Smoke on the mountain and fire in my heart…”
Patricia Rettig, B&B’s Media Relations manager, told me that they had sold 80% of the tickets before they even opened. They added a few more performances; the show now continues at Beef & Boards through August 6, 2008. There are shows throughout the week as well as on the weekends. Please call 317-872-9664 to make a reservation for this and/or for future B&B shows. “Homecoming” director Jeff Stockberger will perform in the next show, “The Producers,” which opens August 9, 2008.
By the way, Kathy was our server on Saturday night. As always at B&B, the service was excellent and Chef Odell Ward’s buffet was homey and satisfying.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com