Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Toe-Tappin’ ‘Smoke on the Mountain’ Charms in De Pere

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Photo caption: The cast for Play-by-Play Theatre’s production of “Smoke on the Mountain” is, from left, Emma Utrie, Nick Schommer, Mary Ehlinger, Parker Drew, Tony Pesavento, Carolyn Silverberg and Brandon Ponschock. (Play-by-Play Theatre photo)

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In Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in pickle capital Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, the pastor fidgets in front of the congregation – the theater audience in the case of “Smoke on the Mountain.”

The Rev. Oglethorpe’s guest stars for a Saturday night sing are nowhere in sight.

As he looks for something to do, a lightbulb goes on in his head. He walks to a wall switch and turns on a solitary lightbulb on the ceiling. He gazes proudly on the illuminated bulb as if its existence is a phenomenon.

Time passes. No guests. Rev. Oglethorpe mouths apologies, checks his watch, and looks embarrassed/uncomfortable.

 He makes his way to the piano and plinks/plunks through “Rock of Ages,” the classic, rock-solid hymn. After finishing, The Rev. again looks sheepishly toward his congregation. Sigh… no guests who he had sent off for a quick bite to eat.

They had been here, he assures, pointing to their instruments.

In rushes a young woman in a Sunday-go-to-meetin’ dress looking like it is from the 1930s – as it is supposed to. The time in this story is 1938. She speaks of her family having an accident with its bus – tipping it over when everybody leaned to one side to see oh so many pickles floating down the river, escapees from the pickle factory.

She speaks of being part of the musical family but does not sing. She supplies sign language. When Rev. Oglethorpe notes that everyone is hearing in the congregation, she says that’s okay she will sign anyway because her mother says she needs the practice.

And there you have a glimpse of the flavor of “Smoke on the Mountain,” being presented for three more performances by Play-by-Play Theatre in Webb Theatre of Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts at St. Norbert College.

It’s a gently satirical show, filled with lively songs deep in church/Southern roots and flavored by nostalgia and history (the lighting of the lightbulb being truly important).

The audience is definitely in church, including the set. The main set piece is a smartly conceived and executed suggestion of a clapboard church. With tall pines part of the backdrop, it additionally is, like the title of the famous spiritual, “The Church in the Wildwood.”

The “definitely in church” includes the Christian songs sung, the aura of Rev. Oglethorpe, the style of the Sanders Family band and the unleashing of biblical passages. Comically, dueling Bible passages are the thing between characters, notably Rev. Oglethorp and Vera Sanders, the strong-willed mother of the family. One person spews a passage (fitting a situation), and another finishes with the book, number and passage. These are Bible-totin’ folks, for sure.

Once the Sanders Family starts into its show, as it has been brought a long distance to do, all sorts of revelations unfold. Some of the early fun is the power play between and among the parental units and the Rev. Each rules – in his/her mind. Making that happen takes the kind of acting finesse that Mary Ehlinger (as Vera Sanders), Parker Drew (Burl Sanders) and Brandon Ponschock (Rev. Olgethorpe) can do.

The acting fits in as a layer in this creation. The actors also are musicians, playing more than one instrument in most cases. The churchy music doesn’t tell a story (like in musical theater) but does (because of the characters’ religiosity). The show is a concert (lots of music) but not (everything is tied to a story). The characters are played straight, and yet they are comical in their seriousness. The players pull off this rich amalgam – some more so, some less so.

Mary Ehlinger directs, music directs, acts and performs musically in this production. She is quite earnest about it all, and that rubs off on her company as best as it can.

Each Sanders Family member has a kind of solo, a hybrid monologue that is akin to witnessing that certain churches take to. In essence, wheels fall off the wagon in each case – delightfully so for the audience.

The guitar-playing father, Burl (Parker Drew), tells of staving off the temptation of selling beer at his service station.

Fiddle-playing daughter Denise (Emma Utrie) tells of secretly auditioning for the role of Scarlett O’Hara with David O. Selznick who told her, “I’ll be in touch.”

Mandolin-playing son Dennis (Nick Schommer), Denise’s twin, takes to the pulpit as fire-breathing pastor his Mama wants him to be.

Signing, percussion-playing daughter June (Carolyn Silverberg) does not have an earth-shaking revelation but rather sets a tone of nice.

Burl’s bass-playing brother, Stanley (Tony Pesavento) speaks of his time away from the family in understated ways.

Piano-playing Vera (Mary Ehlinger) builds up a giant metaphor about June bugs and sinners that suddenly goes way, way awry.

Rev. Oglethorpe (Brandon Ponschock) doesn’t witness, so to speak, but virtually everything he says, every pause, every glance becomes a kind of witnessing.

Some of the fun comes in what Carolyn Silverberg has to do as June, the non-singing family member. She plays a laundry list of percussion instruments – washboard, tambourine, spoons, train whistle, “whip,” cymbals and so on. Her signing not the well-defined American Sign Language but the kind of gestures and facial expressions you would use if you were in a foreign country and trying to make yourself understood to someone who speaks another language. Hearing the words a singer is singing and watching June’s interpretation is a hoot.

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Musical numbers

“Rock of Ages”

“The Church in the Wildwood”

“Build on the Rock”

“Meet Mother in the Skies”

“No Tears in Heaven”

“Christian Cowboy”

“The Filling Station”

“I’ll Never Die (I’ll Just Change My Address)”

“Jesus is Mine”

“Blood Medley”

   “Nothing But the Blood”

   “Are You Washed in the Blood”

   “There is Power in the Blood”

   “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”

“I’ll Live a Million Years”

“I Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now”

“Everyone Home But Me”

“Angel Band”

“Inching Along”

“Transportation Medley”

   “I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap”

   “I’ll Walk Every Step of the Way”

   “Life’s a Railway to Heaven”

“Whispering Hope”

“Smoke on the Mountain”

“I’ll Fly Away”

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Creative: Concept – Alan Bailey; book – Connie Ray; musical arrangements – Mike Craver, Mark Hardwick; director/music director – Mary Ehlinger; scenic designer – Warren Elliott; lighting designer – Ivy Covaciu; technical director – Drew Arnold; sound engineer – Chad Bishop; production stage manager – Michelle Oren

Cast: The Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe – Brandon Ponschock; Burl Sanders – Parker Drew; Vera Sanders – Mary Ehlinger; Stanley Sanders – Tony Pesavento; Dennis Sanders – Nick Schommer; Denise Sanders – Emma Utrie; June Sanders – Carolyn Silverberg

Running time: One hour, 47 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29, 30, Dec. 1

Info: playbyplaytheatre.org

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THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My latest book, “I Fell Out of a Tree in Fresno (and other writing adventures),” is available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum and Bosse’s.

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