The Star Group Newspapers’ Paul Gnadt: “It’s Clear, You’ve Got To See Smoke”

We’ve received our 3rd and final professional review of SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN. And once again the critic is urging theatregoers to put this one on their list of must-see shows. The production plays now thru September 10th and while the remaining shows this weekend are Sold Out – there is still room for the rest of the run of the show. So after you read this stellar review, give our Box Office a call at 817-202-0600 to get those reservations squared away.

Read on:

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It’s clear: you’ve got to see ‘Smoke’
PAUL GNADT

keenestar@thestargroup.com

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Here’s hoping you get your hands on the hottest tickets in town to see “Smoke on the Mountain,” the current production of the Plaza Theatre Company.

It’s playing through Sept. 10 at the Plaza Theatre in Cleburne.

This is not only a fan favorite — “Smoke” is the second-most produced play in regional theaters — it’s a Plaza favorite, too. You can just feel the enthusiastic connection between actors and audience in this musical comedy that, when all is said and sung, is about what really matters: family, forgiveness and faith.

Usually, humor and hymns are not paired in a musical, but this one works because of the setting  — a church where the audience is the congregation — the occasion — a Saturday night sing — and the terrific voices of the Plaza troupe, which blends together in 21 church stalwarts such as “The Church in the Wildwood,” “A Wonderful Time Up There,” “Bringing in the Sheaves” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

It’s sort of like a Gaither Homecoming concert, where every song is sung by the Gaither Vocal Band, or perhaps a song service at your church, where the hymns are sung by the best quartet or trio, and in between songs, the pastor and deacons present side-splitting comedy routines.

The setting is a Saturday night in 1937 at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Chatham County, N.C.

The congregation is welcomed by Maude (double cast with Corliss Cornils and played by Judy “GiGi” Barnett on the night I attended) and Myrtle (Taffy Geisel), the Bible-toting, scowling, every-church-has-them little-ol’-ladies who have occupied their seats forever in “Amen Corner.”

Their contributions are a dim light bulb that hangs over the 160-seat theater-in-the-round, and Bible Belt conservative scowls at everything. But watch them throughout, because their non-verbal communications are priceless.

The story — the first of a trilogy — is about Burl (Alvarado’s Kevin Poole) and Vera Sanders (Arlington’s Darcy Farrington), patriarch and matriarch of the Sanders Family Gospel Singers, who are invited to the church by Pastor Mervyn Oglethorpe (Plaza favorite Jonathan Metting) to witness and sing.

The family of musicians includes Burl’s elbow-bending brother Stanley (Cleburne’s JaceSon Barrus), teenage twins Dennis (double cast with Cleburne’s Parker Barrus and Andrew Guzman on the night I attended) and Denise (double cast with Cleburne’s Tabitha Barrus and, on the night I attended, Burleson’s Kasi Hollowell) and would include older sister June (Blum’s Camille Shaw) if only she could sing. But she can’t. Instead, she signs the words — not according to American Sign Language-established images, but according to her unique and hilarious imagination and invention.

Shaw is a scene-stealing hoot, even to the point that, when Hollowell, who has been an ensemble singer and dancer in three recent Plaza productions, finally gets the chance to use her outstanding voice in a solo number called “I’ll Never Die, I’ll Just Change My Address,” she is almost unheard over the laughter resulting from Shaw’s antics. It’s funny, funny stuff, but Shaw is in every scene and I would have liked to listen to Hollowell’s one-time solo without interruption.

But Hollowell is in other numbers and really shines in a trio with Farrington and Guzman.

But, we digress. Burl, the owner of a local gas station, decides to take his family back on the road when business begins to fall off after a station down the road begins selling beer. Still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, Mount Pleasant residents are becoming worried as the Mount Pleasant Pickle Plant, the area’s primary employer, begins laying off workers at an alarming rate.

The Sanders, who arrive late because their vehicle overturned when it slid on pickle brim escaping from the plant, lead the sing by quoting Bible texts to fit every situation and spontaneously breaking into hymns, accompanied on the piano by Cousin Melva (musical director Cheri Dee Mega) and a combination of cousins Beuford, Jethro and Forrest (Bob Gracey, and Mike Medley on the bass, Parker Barrus and Stephen Singleton on guitar and Howard Geisel on fiddle).

Each member of the family takes a few minutes to deliver a monologue, a sort-of testimonial or brief summary of their station in life.

The themes are poignant (Barrus), historical and philosophical (Poole), and revealing (Farrington, Guzman, Hollowell and Shaw). All are delivered with the emotion, timing and passion that has become synonymous with the talent on display at the Plaza Theatre Company.

Regular Plaza attendees know Barrus can sing from his lead in “Will Rogers Follies.” But in “Smoke,” he delivers a great monologue about his wayward life, followed by a solo of “Meet Mother in the Skies,” which gets right to the point. Meanwhile, Farrington, Guzman and Hollowell are outstanding singers and are a delight to listen to in everything they do.

Poole, in his sixth PTC production as actor or director, has a strong yet comfortable baritone voice, consistent with the strong, yet gentile, head of the family.

Metting, most recently seen as Joseph in PTC’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and other prominent roles in “Hello, Dolly” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” looks just like a young pastor ready to break with tradition. Watch his facial expressions and the non-spoken communication between he and Shaw as they fall for each other.

There are some silly songs, too, such as the ensemble collaborating on “Christian Cowboy.” You’ll enjoy PTC veteran Farrington’s take on a “children’s story” about a Junebug that has a disastrous and hilarious ending.

Woven throughout the musical numbers is the “signing” of Shaw, who is absolutely a hoot as she uses her entire body and a few clever props to convey the meaning of the words.

Watch her facial expressions, the expressions of the actors on the periphery of the main action and — every now and then — catch a glimpse of the ladies in Amen Corner as they react with shock and disgust to just about everything.

Listen, too, for Guzman’s mellow tenor voice on his songs.

When Plaza opened in 2007, one performance of “Smoke” attracted an audience of three people, Barrus wrote in his director’s notes in the program. Now, PTC has more than 950 season ticket holders, with sales for 2012 to be capped at 1,000.

This is a must see. I saw Plaza’s 2010 version of “Smoke on the Mountain, Homecoming,” the third of the trilogy, three times. I’ll return for at least that many visits for this funny, inspirational and thoroughly enjoyable trip back in time.

Conceived by Alan Bailey and written by Connie Ray with musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, “Smoke on the Mountain,” directed by Barrus with assistance from Solomon Abah, stage management by Jay Cornils, light design by Cameron Barrus and William Young; costumes designed by Kara Barnes; set design, painting and construction by JaceSon Barrus, Jodie Barrus, Parker Barrus, Soni Barrus, G. Aaron Siler, Milette Siler, Luke Hunt and Dora Hunt is presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 10 at the Plaza Theatre, 111. S. Main in Cleburne.

Tickets — $15 for adults, $13 for age 65 and older, $13 for students and $12 for age 12 and under — are available at the box office or by calling 817-202-0600.

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