TR Robertson — Lamb’s Players Theatre, from Coronado, with help from Colleen Smith and the staff of Moonlight Theatre, has brought the critically acclaimed “Smoke on the Mountain” musical to North County and those fortunate to attend are in for a very funny musical adventure and an amazing trip into a religious world of the South many may have never seen. As a young man, who spent part of my youth in Louisiana and Texas, raised by Southern Baptist parents, “Smoke on the Mountain” brought back many memories of revivals and old time Southern spirituals I attended. “Smoke on the Mountain”, currently playing a three week run at Vista’s Avo Theatre, takes those in attendance into the world of a 1938 Southern Baptist Church going through changes as the pastor brings in a musical family to lead the congregation in a rousing revival of songs, featuring witness and confessions by the singers and, oh no, dance. Dance was strictly forbidden by fundamental Southern Baptist Churches long ago, as I know from personal experience.
“Smoke on the Mountain”, written by Connie Ray and conceived by Alan Bailey, first appeared at the McCarter Theatre in 1990 on the Princeton University campus in New Jersey. Since its opening, the musical has become one of the most produced musicals worldwide. The title of the musical comes from Psalm 104:32, “He who looks at the Earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke”, which the congregation finds out at the end of the musical. The production at the Avo is directed by Kerry Meads under the musical direction of Jon Lorenz. Meads is the director of Lamb’s Educational Outreach and also serves as Lamb’s Associate Artistic Director. Lorenz has been the musical director of over 70 productions at Lamb’s Theatre.
As patrons begin to seat themselves, they are soon warmly greeted by Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, in South Carolina. We soon realize we are now the congregation of the church and the Pastor is very nervous as we are waiting on the arrival of the Sanders Family Singers, who are running late. The Pastor decides to begin the service and leads us in the singing of “Rock of Ages” as he enthusiastically plays the piano. The pastor is played by the exuberant Brian Mackey, a Lamb’s veteran and former Craig Noel Award winner for Actor of the Year. His wonderful facial and body expressions run the range of emotions as the pastor deals with changes he is bringing to his church. Especially humorous was his reading of members of the congregation to keep in the thoughts and prayers and what they were having to deal with in their lives. We also “meet” Miss Maude and Miss Myrtle who are elderly members of the congregation the pastor seems to keep in mind as his proposed changes begin to unfold. Act I deals with the Sanders Family bringing a bit of dance to their interpretation of “Power in the Blood” as they moved to the spirit and the pastors worry about how members of his Baptist congregation will react to this.
Pictures Supplied by Lamb’s Theatre
The first family member we meet is June Sanders, played by Kellon Gold, who has worked as an assistant stage manager at Lamb’s since 2016. June rushes in to greet the pastor and explains what has led to their tardiness. June says they are driven to be at this church as “God scratches where the world itches”. It seems their bus had fallen on its side as the family rushed to one side to see the river outside of the Mt. Pleasant Pickle Factory which was filled with thousands of pickles that had escaped “pickling”, but the assistance of friendly folk helped them continue on their trip. June does not sing with the family, but does provide some musical accompaniment, such as providing the sound of horse’s hooves in “Christian Cowboy”. Her main job is to provide sign language for the congregation for deaf members. Her enthusiastic signing is a thing of wonder and amazement for the audience.
The congregation then meets the Sanders Family. Each family member will have beautiful solo songs in the performance sung with crystal clear voices, each is an accomplished musician playing a variety of instruments, each will give a personal witness testimony as to what led them to the place they are now in and each has very funny moments. Playing the family patriarch, Burt Sanders, is Rik Ogden, in his 22nd season with Lamb’s Theatre. His wife, Vera Sanders, is played by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, Lamb’s Associate Artistic Director and member of Lamb’s resident ensemble since 1979. Deborah brings both a humorous and tender presentation of the family matriarch. Steven Gouvela plays Stanley Sanders, Burt’s troubled brother. Gouvela is an accomplished Broadway actor and musician who recently won rave reviews as the Siren in Cygnet’s “Shockheaded Peter”. Playing one of the fraternal twins is Beau Brians as Dennis Sanders, the shy brother who aspires to be a pastor. Beau is making his lamb’s debut. The other twin is Denise Sanders, played by Annie Buckley, on a main stage for Lamb’s for the first time. Annie’s presentation of Denise’s testimony about how she dealt with temptation in Charlotte is absolutely hilarious.
The harmony, timing and creativity these actors bring to the stage is amazing. They each have a number of solo songs or parts of songs and each have several standout moments throughout the performance. The range of songs featured include old time gospel hymns, such as “The Church in the Wildwood” to songs created specifically for the musical, such as “Blood Medley” and “I’m Using My Bible for a Road Map”. The songs range from the gospels to bluegrass to country. Another amazing feature about this group of actors is their ability to play a huge number of different musical instruments – guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, standing bass, banjo, harmonica, tambourine, ukulele, spoons, and washboard.
Whether you are a religious person or someone who just loves great theatre, this is a musical you will fall in love with. There are subtle messages in the musical, such as Vera’s story about drinking lemonade and her experience with a June bug, “We’re all June bugs, flying around aimlessly, hitting the screen doors of life and drowning in the refreshments”. Somewhere in there is a message about people trying to find their place in this world. The enthusiasm of the closing number, “Smoke on the Mountain and Fire in My Heart”, sums up the enthusiasm you feel throughout the entirety of this musical. It is a toe tapping, hand clapping, feel good experience you will not forget.
“Smoke on the Mountain” will play at the Avo Theatre in downtown Historic Vista until March 18th. Tickets can be purchased by contacting Lamb’s Theatre at www.LambsPlayers.org or call 619-437-6000.