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LIGHTNING REVIEW: 'Smoke on the Mountain' lights fire on Playhouse stage

'Smoke on the Mountain' lights up the Playhouse stage through Oct. 19. [FLAT ROCK PLAYHOUSE PHOTO] 'Smoke on the Mountain' lights up the Playhouse stage through Oct. 19. [FLAT ROCK PLAYHOUSE PHOTO]

Scott Treadway as pastor Mervin Oglethorpe walks tentatively into the sanctuary of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, reaches the pulpit and tugs a pull chain to turn on an overhead light. From his expression and body language, we can feel the tension. He’s about to preside over the Mount Pleasant’s first Saturday night gospel sing and in 1938 in rural North Carolina that’s a daring thing to do.

 

The Sanders family has come to town to perform the show, and the actors on stage at the Flat Rock Playhouse very soon ease the tension for the audience, if not for the Rev. Oglethorpe, who suffers bouts of fright with every envelope-pushing part of the performance.
Playhouse newcomers Chris Damiano and Margaret Dudasik join returning actors Eric Scott Anthony, Emily Mikesell, Sam Sherwood and Lilly Tobin in the very talented musical cast that delivers a flawless performance of 18 old-time, bluegrass and gospel songs in just under two hours.
There’s more to the show than music. It’s hilarious at times, often poignant and always fun. Actors playing musicians always seems to pose a bit of a challenge; they must play their instruments and sing well while sustaining the mannerisms and accents of the Sanders family members.

One by one, each family member steps forward to share his or her witness, sometimes religious, sometimes not. A highlight of these is Anthony’s Uncle Stanley, who has the temerity to announce, “I know what beer smells like and I like it.” (This, after his younger brother Burl has told of how he’s lost business to a competitor because he won’t sell alcohol at the filling station he runs.)
In “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now,” Anthony tells his story in a way that moves his family to accompany his solo in instruments and voice, a redemption scene worthy of the hymn.
Throughout the show, the cast exhibits a seemingly infinite combination of solos, duos, trios and quartets, swapping a guitar for a standup bass, a fiddle for a mandolin and back again.
As June, Lilly Tobin is impossible to ignore. A combination of Carol Burnett, Minnie Pearl and Marcel Marceau, Tobin mimes her own creative and goofy body movements for the songs that is in no way sanctioned by American Sign Language standards. When she's not signing, the diminutive actress provides back up percussion and other accompaniment on a washboard, laundry basket, wood blocks, train whistle, party noisemaker, tambourine, triangle, spoons and a No. 10 tin can. Lilly's a wreck on the highway; we can’t tear our eyes away if we try. Her constant comic relief is one reason the show, though often profound, never descends into the pious.
As the brittle preacher, fearful that dancing or the glimpse of a shapely calf might at any moment scandalize the town, Treadway is the foil all night long. He forgets himself a time or two and joins in the closing refrain of the gospel songs, drawing puzzled looks from the real musicians.
The wonderful cast brings the show to a close with “I’ll Fly Away,” and then sends the buoyed congregation happily out the doors with a rousing performance of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. In “Smoke on the Mountain” the actors’ passion ignites a blaze that warms body and soul.

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Smoke on the Mountain runs through Oct. 19 at Flat Rock Playhouse. Performances are 2 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets call 828-693-0731 or visit www.flatrockplayhouse.org.