‘Smoke on the Mountain’ brings feeling of high-tempo church to life

MONROE — Watching the gospel-infused musical “Smoke on the Mountain” was like being in the pew at an old timey Southern Baptist church service, only better, because there wasn’t any hot-aired preaching and there were lots of funny parts.

Also, there was some of the prettiest gospel and bluegrass music that could be heard on God’s green earth.

“Smoke” has been loosely compared to the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” and true enough, there are a couple of familiar songs from the movie, such as “I’ll Fly Away” and “Angel Band.” But unlike “Oh Brother,” there aren’t any prison escapes or hair-raising manhunts. There are just soulful tunes punctuated by an occasional testimonial, story, or in church terms, a witness. “Smoke” might be better compared to a gospel revival.

Throughout the show, however, the spirit will move you to sing along, tap your feet, laugh your head off and generally declare to the high heavens, oh mercy, that you have been downright entertained.

“Smoke” is being performed through Oct. 26 by Sky Performing Arts in Monroe.

The musical is set in the 1940s inside the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church during a Saturday Night Sing. (The stage crew did such a good job turning the Sky Valley Education Center into Mount Pleasant Church that a newcomer to Friday night’s opener thought the stage was a real chapel.)

Inside Mount Pleasant, the good Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe is panicking while awaiting the arrival of the Sanders Family Singers, who are the guests of honor but are an hour late. They’re late because they have overturned their van near the Mount Pleasant Pickle Factory (“It’s the only town that smells like it belongs on a hot dog”).

In a flurry, the Sanderses finally arrive and commence to singin’ and witnessing after a five-year hiatus from the gospel circuit. And there’s more singin’ and more witnessin’ (“We like to talk a lot,” declared June Sanders). Well, all this witnessin’ and singin’ has thrown the good Rev. Ogelthorpe off. He was thinking he might get a good word in edgewise but there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell for that. Ogelthorpe tries and tries to assert himself, but the Sanders Family is a force to be reckoned with and shall not be overcome.

The Sanders Family is made up of earnest and patient father Burl (Bob Nydegger) on guitar, tightly wound wife and mother Vera (Janet Kockritz) on accordion, twins Denise and Dennis (wonderfully played by Emily Johnson and Matt Glazener), and daughter June (the highly amusing Lisa Goshorn) on bass and guitar. There’s also the somewhat creepy Uncle Stanley (wonderful Neil Sandlin) on mandolin, guitar and bass. As each Sanders delivers a story, an underlying theme of dysfunction begins to emerge. Piano player Beth Nelson and fiddle player Kris Forster supplied excellent accompaniment.

And let’s not forget Rev. Oglethorpe, the glue that holds this whole Saturday Night Sing together. Oglethorpe is played by Asa Sholdez, who, according to himself, should never be allowed to sing. But here, Sholdez manages a minor miracle: playing a key role in a musical without doing any singing. He succeeds in being a strong force with his comic facial expressions, spot-on body language and fine acting.

Eventually the good reverend realizes he’s no match for the Sanderses, so he picks up a pair of maracas and goes with the gospel flow. Though there’s no sermon, we all still leave a little cleansed, washed over with the power of some good tunes and being among a community of brethren who are clapping and tapping and singing out loud. Can I get an “Amen”?

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