SAN DIEGO — "Smoke on the Mountain," a "Forever Plaid" for the Bible set, revels in the close harmonies of church music. And in between songs ranging from a soulful "Bringing in the Sheaves" to a rompin', stompin' "Christian Cowboy," the virtues and vanities of the six devout Sanders Family Singers circa 1938 get a thorough going over in ways both funny and touching.
It's a challenge to generate laughs without making fun of the Sanders family or the setting, the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina, where the congregation is ready to walk out in protest if the Sanderses get so carried away that--heaven forbid--they break into dance.
But the Lamb's Players Theatre captures just the right tone in this production, which runs through Aug. 13 at the Lyceum Space in downtown San Diego's Horton Plaza.
Lamb's knows a lot about mixing religious belief with entertainment, having been at it since 1971 when the troupe began as a street theater presenting medieval morality plays. Its increased sophistication has become apparent: This is a far better production of "Smoke" than the one Lamb's offered in 1992, the show's West Coast premiere.
Though the director, the design team and half the cast are the same as they were then, there is a different feeling now--more a sense that the performers are inhabiting rather than playing the characters, more a sense of sharing life's naturally funny moments instead of just going for the punch line.
The play begins with Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe (played with high mop-the-brow anxiety by Larry Parrish) anxiously addressing the audience as his flock, killing time while he waits for the Sanderses.
They're late, and when they finally show up, they race down the aisles of the theater, spilling out their woes (seems their bus overturned when they stopped to watch the pickles from the Mt. Pleasant Pickle Plant floating down the river). Then, without missing a beat, they take over the pulpit, spar Bible quotes with the preacher and burst into song.
In between numbers, each family member gets to testify about a faith-challenging, ultimately affirming experience.
The father of the clan, Burl, played solidly by Clay Rider, tells how he wrestled with the idea of selling beer in his gas station in order to win back customers. His wife, Vera, performed with comedic grace by Vanda Eggington, offers a metaphor about June bugs that is stretched to a very funny breaking point. Son Dennis, played with shy charm by Jon Lorenz, tries to deliver a sermonette his mother wrote for him but is stumped when he realizes he left the second page on the bus.
As daughter Denise, Sarah Zimmerman brings sultry vocal talents to "I'll Never Die--I'll Just Change My Address" and wraps a seductive aura of decadent longing around a story of auditioning for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind."
Greg Campbell is subtle as Stanley, Burl's quietly tormented black-sheep brother, just back from prison for an unspecified crime. Kerrie Gallagher suggests sweet simplicity as June, the non-singing Sanders who signs the songs for the hearing-impaired, even though there \o7 are\f7 no hearing-impaired in the Mt. Pleasant Baptist congregation.
The part of June, incidentally, is the part that non-singing actress Connie Ray originally wrote for herself when she came up with "Smoke" for the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., in 1989. "Smoke" went on to a successful run off-Broadway; Ray went on to play a leading role in the television series "The Torkelsons."
The design elements at the Lyceum Space all reinforce a sense of you-are-there reality. Mike Buckley's wood and cream-painted church set is plain and homey, and Veronica Murphy's costumes are of the period and reflective of the Sanders' humble means.
Meads' direction is flawless, as is the company's musicianship, from the singing (arrangements by Eggington) to the actors' virtuosity on everything from piano to guitar, bass, banjo, Autoharp, washboard, cowbell and bottle caps.
At one point, those bottle caps flew from the Quaker Oats box in which they were being shaken and landed at the feet of some patrons in the first row. As the embarrassed and apologetic Sanders sisters scooped up the caps, folks in the audience couldn't quite tell if it had been an accident or not. That's how good the acting was.
\o7 * "Smoke on the Mountain," Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego. Wednesday, Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Aug. 13. $20 to $25. (619) 437-0600. Running time: 2 hours.\f7
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Larry Parrish: Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe
Clay Rider: Burl Sanders
Vanda Eggington: Vera Sanders
Greg Campbell: Stanley Sanders
Sarah Zimmerman: Denise Sanders
Jon Lorenz: Dennis Sanders
Kerrie Gallagher: June Sanders
A Lamb's Players Theatre production of a play by Connie Ray, directed by Kerry Meads. Musical direction: Vanda Eggington. Arrangements: Mike Crauer and Mark Hardwick. Sets: Mike Buckley. Costumes: Veronica Murphy. Lights: C. Todd Brown. Stage manager: Gabriel Campbell.