The cast of Lamb's Players Theatre's "Smoke on the Mountain." Photo by Daren Scott
Connie Ray’s Smoke on the Mountain is one of the most widely produced shows out there, especially in rural American towns, and why not? It’s set in rural America, in 1938 at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in a North Carolina burg whose principal economic engine is the local pickle factory. This revival-meetin’ musical is also a favorite of Lamb’s Players Theatre, which has staged it on previous occasions but now for the first time at its current Coronado venue. This is the sort of theater-going experience where audience members are encouraged to clap along and stamp their feet.
There’s a loosely crafted “plot” about the Sanders family singers/players revving up the congregation at a church service presided over by the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (Brian Mackey). They arrive late after a bus mishap, but still in good humor and perpetually imbued with the spirit of the Good Book. The thin story’s one discernible conflict is the reverend’s mid-show disapproval of any dancing in his church, but this is resolved quickly, perhaps too quickly.
The narrative could really be tossed out altogether, confining Smoke on the Mountain to its musical performances. Many of the songs are the kind that Andy Griffith favored back in Mayberry when the tone of his TV show turned spiritual, or of the knee-slapping variety typical of Baptist churches. The Sanders family, portrayed here by Rik Ogden, Beau Brians, Deborah Gilmour-Smyth, Annie Buckley and Katie Sapper, is all rather vanilla except for Steve Gouveia as Stanley Sanders, who brings a welcome brooding intensity to the party. Gouveia, who delivered a creepy tour de force earlier this year in Cygnet Theatre’s bodacious Shockheaded Peter, is Smoke on the Mountain’s one textured character. When he sings solo, he brings to mind the jagged edges of the great Steve Earle. His second-act monologue about a prisoner and a child is beautifully honest. And, in this show’s one departure from utter cleanliness, he gets to stomp off the stage muttering “Shit.” Not the wisest thing to do at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/8/17.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat