By John Quinn
For professional theater, all times are bad economic times. There never seems to be enough money to go around, and this is the time of year when even some of the most competent companies call it quits. While the eight year old Breathe Art Theatre Project ceases operation this month, Center Stage Entertainment ends an eight-year hiatus, beginning the tightrope walk to success with the musical “Smoke on the Mountain,” now at The Box Theatre in Mount Clemens.
“He who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke.” Thus sayeth Psalm 104:32, hence the name of this musical revue and interludes of monologue. Conceived by Alan Bailey, with a book by Connie Ray and musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, “Smoke on the Mountain” first hit off-Broadway in 1990. It remains a popular work, and a company is currently in residence at the Little Opry Theatre in Branson, Missouri.
Our scene is the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church of Mt. Pleasant, North Carolina. It’s a rather warm night in 1938, and the Reverend Mr. Mervin Oglethorpe (Marcus Laban) is about to hold his first-ever evening worship service that includes music. It seems the Pastor’s car boiled over on Route 11, and he just made it to the service station of Burl Sanders (Mark D. Konwinski). As fate (or divine intervention) would have it, Burl is senior member and guitarist of the Singing Sanders Family. The troupe includes his wife and pianist, Vera (Laura Beth Quinn); daughter June (Amanda Sayers), who, while not deaf, doesn’t sing but signs. Add in the twins, guitarist Denise (Marielle Zerba) and Dennis (Christiaan Lafata) on washboard, and you pretty much sum up the family – except for Burl’s moody brother Stanley (Gannon Styles), who plays a washtub bass. The minister invites them to perform.
If Pastor Oglethorpe thought he has any control over his prayer service, he’s sadly mistaken. Not only do the Sanders have the music, “they like to talk a lot.” Each of the six is moved to “witness” in a monologue, which range from the rather goofy to the very dramatic. But the fun here is in the 30-some authentic Gospel hymns from the Southern Baptist tradition.
Full disclosure: I am a lover of “old-timey” music, and you’re going to have to pry my vinyl triple-album of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (c.1972) from the banjo pickin’ fingers of my cold, dead hands. There’s a wealth of beauty in the simple lyrics and tunes of rural America, and the music of its small churches is profoundly uplifting. Say what you will about Christianity, but its message is hope.
The musical performances for “Smoke on the Mountain” do not disappoint. The cast is in top form both with voices and instruments. The harmonies of six -and sometime seven – voices a cappella will send thrills up your back. Where the production could use reinforcement is in interpretation of character.
Connie Ray’s script is never condescending, nor is there a hint that these people are odd because they passionately practice a fundamentalist religion. Director Mark D. Konwinski hasn’t introduced any. But the characters, as written, contain the keys to their personalities without any added subtext. These are real, terribly earnest souls, yet some performances are short on the sincerity needed to convey the characters’ intrinsic humor and pathos. In short hand: There’s mugging going on. Since the seven cast members share a handkerchief-sized space, “stage business” can distract. Due to unfortunate line of sight, the boisterous first act finale, “I’ll Live a Million Years,” left me with no motive for Stanley’s stormy exit – but I’m hoping that was just me. Fortunately, in Act II, we learn that Stanley has a lot in common with the Prodigal Son.
Gannon Styles finds the truth in Stanley, and his witness confessional shows remarkable character study. Shoulders hunched, eyes averted, he is the epitome of discomfort as he subtly underplays his account. And when he raised his head to quote a fragment of scripture, his voice slips into the cadence of a Baptist preacher, a delicate touch that simply completes the character. This script abounds with such potential.
So welcome back, Center Stage! Your return brings a little joy to a turbulent spring. The folks down home here at Encore Michigan are eager to find what’s boiling in the pot for next time!
‘Smoke on the Mountain’
Center Stage Entertainment at The Box Theatre, 51 N. Walnut St., Mt. Clemens. 8 p.m. June 7 and 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. June 10. 110 minutes. $25. 586-329-6570. http://www.CenterStageMacomb.com