Nothing much happens in the Connie Ray penned musical Smoke on the Mountain, currently on stage at Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre, but for its target market that won’t be a problem.
Actually, to call Smoke on the Mountain a musical is a bit misleading. In reality it is a couple dozen hymns strung together, and between its bluegrass flavoured songs is a family of singers telling stories of life in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina in 1938.
This is no Trapp Family Singers though. For the Sanders Family Singers of Smoke on the Mountain, the stakes are pretty low, and it is hard to get excited by a June bug in a glass of lemonade and the merits of dancing in church. The most tension Smoke on the Mountain can offer is in the show’s first few minutes when we discover the reason the family is late because of a bus accident. But not to worry, other than some pride and a hairdo, everyone comes out unscathed.
Almost everything in Smoke on the Mountain comes across as a little too sanitary. Ray hints at some of the social issues of the time including the remnants of the Great Depression and even the prohibition hangover, but none of its meatier themes are ever truly explored. Here the solution inevitably becomes a belief in the Lord, the ability to quote scripture, and another gospel song. One supposes the biggest clue as to what we are in for is in the realization that it all takes place inside the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church; emphasis on the pleasant.
Despite never going deep, this is a show tailor-made for the Pacific Theatre and its faith-based mandate. On opening night many in the audience were clapping, singing and laughing, but for the rest of us it felt as if we weren’t part of the club, or in on the joke. Even songs like “I’ll Never Die (I’ll Just Change My Address)” never truly land without a basic understanding of the gospel music genre.
While this cast of eleven are talented singers and musicians (most play double-duty), it was surprising that at times the intimate Pacific Theatre was not filled with the sound of their voices. The alley configuration of the space doesn’t help as the actors play to one side or the other, and while director Sarah Rodgers manages to accommodate the large cast without making it feeling crowded, one would expect a fuller sound based on sheer numbers alone.
As the family’s church host, Mack Gordon goes over the top as Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe with a non-stop toothy grin and energy to spare. As twin sister Denise, Kim Larson gives hope that one day she may indeed be Mr Selznick’s next discovery, and as twin brother Dennis, Matthew Simmons gives a wonderful contrast between his mother’s sermon and that of his own.
Helping out the family are two talented musicians, Stephen Bulat on banjo and Kevin McDonnell on fiddle, tucked into one corner of Carolyn Rapanos’ representational set design.
While Smoke on the Mountain is sure to appeal to its target market, I prefer my proselytizing with a little more meat to it.
Smoke on the Mountain with book by Connie Ray and conceived by Alan Bailey. Musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick. A Pacific Theatre presentation of a Midnight Theatre Collective production. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 West 12 Ave, Vancouver) until November 1. Visit https://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.