Web Onstage: Smokin'

The music is rich; the humor is silly

Back in 1991 when director Alan Bailey and writer Connie Ray's original Smoke on the Mountain (SOTM) was new, The Raleigh News-Observer in North Carolina remarked how it "celebrates a lost age of innocence (and) old time religion in song and silliness." Say amen to that. Much the same can be said of the newest show (third) in the series, SOTM: Homecoming, which is closing out the Playhouse in the Park's Shelterhouse Theater season.

Likewise the same are the show's loose structure and core characters — the preacher at the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church (David Hemsley Caldwell), his now pregnant wife (Tess Hartman), and the Sanders Family, a traveling quintet of gospel singers, pickers and testifiers (Scott Wakefield, Tommy Hancock, Giorgio Litt, Constance Barron and Angela Brinton Mack). As in the two previous SOTM outings (both of which have been popularly received the Playhouse), in Homecoming the Sanders clan comes for a "Saturday Night Sing" at the church to help celebrate a special occasion. It's 1945. WWII has ended. Life is starting over. The preacher and his wife are leaving to go and minister to a cowboy congregation in Texas.

When company members (especially Wakefield and Barron) sing the show's 24 mostly traditional gospel songs Homecoming has the sweet, simple sincerity that gave SOTM and A Sanders Family Christmas their forthright validity. It is indeed a Saturday night celebration of faith, sure of foot and altogether satisfying. When it ventures into comedy, it's more a labor of labor than of love, some of it lame and some of it (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) faintly patronizing of the characters. The pregnant wife's allegedly comedic signing of song lyrics elbows the border between satire and offense. Some of the witnessing tales of affirmed faith are moving (Litt as a Marine who came home with a load of anxieties); some are tedious (Wakefield's tale of buying a farm that's longer on detail than point); and one that's ill-focused and ill-at-ease (Barron scrambling around with toy airplanes in the "children's lesson").

Homecoming's music is rich with tradition and exhilarating. The rest is, well, sillier than need be. Grade: B

SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN: HOMECOMING, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues until June 24.

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