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Ubiquitous gospel revue strikes a chord with Dubya's America

Ubiquitous gospel revue strikes a chord with Dubya's America

Smoke on the Mountain

Through Aug. 13 at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre

If the 2004 presidential election taught us anything, it's that America still heartily embraces its Christian heritage. Republican campaign mastermind Karl Rove's strategic exploitation of heartland fears about encroaching secularism helped to turn out voters 54 million strong in support of Dubya, who allies himself unapologetically with Christian pastors and so-called faith-based initiatives. But should anyone still doubt the vitality of right-wing religious fervor, they need look no further than the incredible success of the gospel musical Smoke on the Mountain.

Conceived in 1988 by native Georgian Alan Bailey and scripted by actress-writer Constance Ray, Smoke made its off-Broadway debut at New York City's Lambs Theatre in 1990. It created a minor splash, not least because Big Apple theatergoers had never seen its like: a folksy, Bible-thumping revue featuring nearly 30 classic gospel tunes and a cast of seven pleasingly ingenuous characters who hold forth at a Saturday-night Baptist church sing-along in Depression-era North Carolina.

The play's subsequent success has been nothing short of phenomenal. It's presented frequently in nationwide community theaters, colleges, summer-stock venues and on professional stages. Closer to home, Tennessee's Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville owns a virtual regional franchise on the show, which it produces often and occasionally tours. Confident that a Nashville audience will rally to Smoke's homespun charm and lighthearted Christian message, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre recently opened its own new production.

"We had some trepidation about the choice, because the show is so associated with the Cumberland County Playhouse," says director Martha Wilkinson. "But we feel that there's still a solid audience for it in West Tennessee. Our season-ticket holders have made requests for it. Smoke offers family-oriented summer fare, and we wanted to put a fresh mark on the material."

Wilkinson harbors no illusions about Smoke's overt Christian appeal. "We're aware that Christianity isn't universal," she says. "Nevertheless, the show is delightful in its own right, and the cast is certainly having fun using their God-given talents. The real trick was finding actors who were the same age as the characters and who could also play all the musical instruments." Indeed, Wilkinson has assembled a versatile bunch who sing and act unself-consciously, yet also manage to jump adroitly back and forth among autoharp, mandolin, guitar, upright bass, piano and fiddle.

The plot is minimal. Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe welcomes the musically minded Sanders Family into his church, and the Chaffin's Barn patrons serve as the proxy congregation. What ensues is a whimsical concert, interspersed with character revelations, comic bits from the pulpit, warm-and-fuzzy insights into the hard rural times of 1938, and a fair amount of Scripture quotation, most of it done in service of the uplifted atmosphere (and not really aiming to proselytize).

The ensemble emotes with a cornpone sincerity, and Wilkinson deserves plaudits for evoking committed, unified performances. Her staging appears static at times, mostly because the actors are usually anchored near their instruments. Yet talent abounds, and it generally pays off.

As Uncle Stanley, Jeff Boyet plays no less than four instruments, as does Hume-Fogg High School senior Andrew Turner as the clan's teenage son. Daron J. Bruce proves a smooth pianist and reassuring father figure as family patriarch Burl, and Amanda Lamb plays matriarch Vera with uninhibited enthusiasm. (Lamb's Act 2 "Junebug sermon" is one of the show's highlights.) The cast also includes two recent Franklin Road Academy grads, Mary Catherine Moore and Ann Marie Gideon, both poised beyond their years and rendering pro-level work as the Sanders daughters. Finally, as the reverend, Hugh Adam Burnett mixes humor with his typical character-actor skills, playing the prideful edges of the preacher with the right balance.

The lineup of gospel favorites includes the very funny "Christian Cowboy," the rollicking "Transportation Medley," the up-tempo "I Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now," "Bringing in the Sheaves" (which induced the audience to raise voices in song), the gentle "Whispering Hope" and the title number, which epitomizes the show's revivalist spirit.

You don't have to be a fundamentalist Christian to enjoy or appreciate Smoke on the Mountain—but it probably doesn't hurt.

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