PREVIEW: Mill Town Players Preach Love and Gospel in ‘Smoke on the Mountain’

Aaron D. Pennington, Katherine Sosebee and Libby Riggins Crews are the Sanders siblings in “Smoke on the Mountain.” Photo Credit TBA

BY SANDY STAGGS/ARTS WRITER

Tricia Dyar has somewhat of a love-love history with “Smoke on the Mountain,” the newest musical production by the Mill Town Players that opens Friday at the historic Pelzer Auditorium.

The actress/singer/musician first fell in love with this show about the gospel-singing Sanders Family in her senior year at Anderson University. And being a gentleman I didn’t ask which class she was in.

When she joined the Greenville Little Theatre production of “Smoke on the Mountain” in 1998, she crossed paths with a handsome young actor named Tom Dyar. But it wasn’t until after they worked together again at GLT in 2005 in the sequel “Sanders Family Christmas” that they began dating and eventually tied the knot in 2009.

Since, this this duo has spread the gospel of “Smoke and the Mountain” all around the country from West Virginia to Illinois.

Written by Connie Ray and conceived by Alan Bailey, this Off-Broadway hit is about the Sanders clan reuniting in 1938 for a Saturday Night Sing at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina. The title is taken from a scripture in Psalm 104:32: “He who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke.”

In between the some two dozen traditional Christian standards such as “I’ll Fly Away,”  “Bringing in the Sheaves” and “The Church in the Wildwood,” family members tell their “witness” stories that reveal the quirky dynamics within the singing group.

The Dyars reprise their roles as the parents Burl and Vera Sanders, and Ms. Dyar also serves as Music Director.

“We have a great cast and it’s been a joy to work with them,” she said of her co-stars: Mckelvie Wilder as Uncle Stanley, Mary Katherine Sosebee as big sister June and Aaron Pennington and Libby Crews as the 17-year-old twins Dennis and Denise.

And Mill Town Players founder Will Ragland plays the small town pastor Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe, who also works at a pickle factory to make ends meet.

This musical is directed by Myra Greene, who also has a rich history with this show, having directed it twice during her 14 years with the Greenwood Community Theatre, where she served as Executive Artistic Director. And in one of these productions, she also played Vera.

Ms. Greene first encountered the “Smoke on the Mountain” around 1994 at the South Eastern Theatre Conference.  “It won that year and I just fell in love with the show,” she said.

“It’s always been near and dear to my heart,” Greene added. “I grew up in a South Baptist Church, and my father loved gospel music.”

However, with so many in the group’s familiarity with “Smoke on the Mountain” – Wildert also worked on the West Virginia production with her college classmate Ms. Dyar – Greene said in the beginning they had a come-to-Jesus moment and adopted the philosophy of starting “with a clean slate as if none of us had ever done this show.”

In addition to singing the hymns and traditionally, the cast also uniquely provides ALL of the live music.

“This is an incredibly talented group of musicians and they move from instrument to instrument, from guitar to upright bass to the mandolin,” Greene said.

And Ms. Dyar, who plays upright bass, actually trimmed the number of instruments she usually tackles, and instead, has been teaching some of the others to play instruments.

“Their harmony on these songs is just astounding,” Greene said. “The audience is in for a treat. It has a great storyline that ties it all together.”

And the audience participates in the show as well, serving as the Mount Pleasant congregation. “We want the audience to be involved as if they have just walked into a country church,” Greene added, noting that this quaint little sanctuary set was designed by Ragland himself.

“Smoke on the Mountain” is such a beloved and popular musical that Greene said she would not be surprised to see some “Smoke”  groupies at some of the performances. Yes that’s a real thing apparently, people who travel around the region and country to see productions of this play.

“The show itself is so heartfelt,” Ms. Dyar added. “It’s based on the life of real people, and it’s about ‘real people’ that everyone knows (within their family or community). People can relate to all of the characters.”

“And this show is so funny and makes you laugh. It has a sincere heart and a fantastic message,” Dyar concluded.

 “Smoke on the Mountain” runs May 19 – June 4, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. Call (864) 947-8000 or visit www.milltownplayers.org.

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