Weekender

Millbrook Playhouse opens 2016 season with musical comedy ‘Smoke on the Mountain’

“Smoke on the Mountain” opens Millbrook Playhouse’s 2016 season.
“Smoke on the Mountain” opens Millbrook Playhouse’s 2016 season. Photo provided

The Millbrook Playhouse in Mill Hall opens its 2016 season with the foot-stomping off-Broadway musical comedy “Smoke on the Mountain” on the main stage.

Millbrook welcomes back the Sanders family into their congregation, as the family of singer-musicians returns from its 2004 visit to the playhouse for another round of song and stories.

“Smoke on the Mountain” tells the story of a Saturday night gospel sing at a country church in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains in 1938. The show features two dozen rousing Southern gospel and bluegrass songs played and sung by the Sanders family, a traveling group making its return to performing after a five-year hiatus.

Pastor Oglethorpe, the young and enthusiastic minister of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, has enlisted the Sanders family in his efforts to bring his tiny congregation into “the modern world.” Between songs, each family member “witnesses” — telling a story about an important event in their life.

“Though they try to appear perfect in the eyes of a congregation who wants to be inspired by their songs, one thing after another goes awry and they reveal their true — and hilariously imperfect — natures,” said David Leidholdt, artistic director. “By the evening’s end, the Sanders family have endeared themselves to us by revealing their weaknesses and allowing us to share in their triumphs.”

Originally workshopped at the McCarter Theatre in 1988, “Smoke on the Mountain” was given a full staging at the McCarter in 1990 and was subsequently moved by the McCarter to Lamb’s Theatre in New York City in 1990 and had 475 performances. The name of the musical comes from Psalm 104:32: “He who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke.” “Smoke on the Mountain” is one of the most produced shows worldwide.

The cast includes Jack Gerhard as Dennis Sanders, Matt Harris as Mervin Oglethorpe, Perry Orfanella as Stanley Sanders, Martena Rogers as Vera Sanders, Bob Payne as Burl Sanders, Aubrey Potash as June Sanders and Laura Spineti as Denise Sanders.

“Smoke on the Mountain” was co-conceived by Alan Bailey, with book by Connie Ray and arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick. Directing will be Leidholdt, with music directed by Martena Rogers.

Because the cast plays all their own instruments, the show is much different than a typical musical where the music is learned while one plays and the other sings.

“The show takes place in 1938 at a Baptist church, so there is no dancing allowed in the church — so we don’t have to learn a lot of choreography for the stage,” Leidholdt said. “But we spent a lot of the time on learning the music and the instrumental parts. Also, this amazingly talented cast all play a minimum of two instruments, so we did have to choreograph the changing of the instruments.”

Leidholdt directed “Smoke on the Mountain” for Millbrook in 2004, and it was a big hit for the theater.

“Though it does take place in a church, I think audiences from all different backgrounds can relate to the family at the center of the show,” he said. “I think it’s a very special show — it has a lot of fun music, a lot of heart, and it’s also very funny. Plus, it’s very different from the rest of the season, and I like variety.”

In speaking about the show’s message, Leidholdt believes it’s all about redemption and second chances.

“Every character is trying to find a way into a new era,” he said. “They have just come out of the Great Depression, but they struggle with tradition while keeping up with progress and the changing world.”

“Smoke on the Mountain” has been popular all across the country in theaters much like Millbrook, and the audiences can always relate to the characters in the show.

“I think people will come in to hear great music and leave surprised at how funny and touching the show is,” Leidholdt said. “I want them to feel happy and moved, and I hope they are amazed at the talent of the performers.”

IF YOU GO

  • What: “Smoke on the Mountain”
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 15-18; 2 p.m. Sunday and June 15, 19
  • Where: main stage, Millbrook Playhouse, 258 Country Club Lane, Mill Hall
  • Info: www.millbrookplayhouse.org
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