BY JEFF LEVENE
Typically where there’s smoke there’s fire, but in the case of Mill Town Player’s newest nearly sold out show, smoke is instead permeating from some skillful banjo pickin and sizzling vocal harmonies. Hitting entertainingly close to home here in the Bible Belt, “Smoke on the Mountain” offers a divine lampoon of Baptist heritage and offers a look into not only one of the most dysfunctional church services you’ll ever see, but one of the funniest as well.
“Smoke on the Mountain” begins at a back roads Baptist church (a set beautifully designed by Will Ragland) as local Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe addresses his congregation on a Saturday night gospel celebration. This night is to be helmed by the Sanders family, a local migrant band of bluegrass minstrels. Armed with mandolins, guitars, a slew of stories, and every verse in the Bible, the Sanders family’s song and dance unintentionally threatens to cause a civil-war between their progressive act, and a pastor protecting his prudish congregation.
The majority of the book is comprised of monologues detailing stories from the Sanders family. And while some are very hit or miss, Myra Greene’s direction provides the comedic timing needed to keep the show continually rolling, sprucing up slower parts with Three-Stooges quality physical comedy. Meanwhile any fans of Bluegrass pickins and harmonies will instantly feel the love of the Lord while listening to Tricia Dyer’s incredible music direction. Add a cast with spectacular character comedy, and incredible musical prowess, and this may be one of Mill Town’s most entertaining shows to date.
Will Ragland’s Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe blends a slightly kinder Jonathan Edwards with a Renee Fleming edge of diva, hopping in at the end of hymns to overpower the Sanders with his gorgeous and over the top operatic tones or his trusty accordion, and shooting dire glares of hell fire when the Sanders break out in dance.
Libby Crews’ Denise Sanders offers a Baptist teen who has inherited her mother’s sweet smugness, and added her own budding flirtatiousness. These conflicting emotions shine in Crews’s movie audition monologue, and her incredible vocals are also some of the best in the show, adding a vibrant bright Dolly Parton punch to group harmonies.
Aaron Pennington’s simple but enthusiastic Dennis Sanders is adorably awkward and childlike. And when Pennington releases his stunning and soaring vocals in numbers like “Life’s Railway to Heaven”, it’s as if the audience has seen him grow up right before their eyes.
Tom Dyar offers a sweet and straight take on the Sanders family patriarch, Burl, often shooting stern looks or a gentle hand to redirect his misbehaving family, all while backing them up on the guitar.
Mckelvie Wilder portrays his brother with a firm gruffness, and gorgeous deep baritone. Wilder’s piano playing offers some of the best instrumentation in the show as well.
Tricia Dyar is the ultimate helicopter mom, hovering around her children and attempting to orchestrate the perfect obedient family. And Dyar delivers some of the biggest laughs in the show when this illusion of perfection is destroyed by a rogue junebug during her hilariously eerie children’s sermon.
And finally, Mary Katherine Sosebee is worth the price of admission alone as she plays June, the family band signer for the deaf and odd prop percussionist. With flamboyant hand motions, Sosebee seems to improve her actions as she goes, each new move funnier than the last. And her ability to flail about so precisely, all while maintaining a deadpan expression that rivals the genius of Rowan Atkinson, left the audience chuckling through entire numbers.
As expected with such hilarity and musical joy, “Smoke on the Mountain” is nearly sold out for its run through June 4th. But with a prayer, you might just be able to get in on the funniest church service this side of Sunday.
“Smoke on the Mountain” runs through 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.