Get yourself a dose of old-time religion at Theatre Charlotte's production of "Smoke on the Mountain." This wildly infectious Southern gospel show makes you a member of the congregation of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church at its first Saturday night sing in 1938.
The night is overseen by the nervous and overly enthusiastic Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (a boyish and exuberant Winston Sims), who is awaiting the arrival of the Sanders Family Singers, the evening's entertainment.
June Sanders (a sweet and hilarious Meredith Owen) finally bursts in and apologizes for her family's late arrival. June is the only member of her family who doesn't sing - but she does sign for the deaf. Unfortunately for her, the congregation is all hearing.
Songs like "Rock of Ages," "Bringing in the Sheaves," "I'll Fly Away," and the titular "Smoke on the Mountain" make this feel like a gospel greatest-hits compilation. There is a pleasing mix of energetic rousing numbers, plaintive hymns, and soulful praise songs, and clapping and singing along is encouraged.
The presentation of the characters' faith and beliefs is inspiring and personal, yet never preachy.
The Sanders family is one talented group, and each shares with the congregation personal testimony along with singing and playing music.
Vera (Sloane Wood), the matriarch of the clan, has a particularly priceless tale. When Wood lets her prim and proper persona fall away, the results are truly uproarious.
Other tales are more solemn, such as the sobering story of older brother Stanley (Matthew Corbett). His prodigal son account shows us how faith can be tested, and that sin isn't as black and white as some would make it out to be. As his brother Burl, the patriarch of the family, Kevin Roberge sings confidently and is convincing as group leader.
Nicholas DeLaCanal and Sara Johnson play the twins Dennis and Denise, and each has an unexpected breakout moment within the narrative. DeLaCanal transforms from a shy and meek teenager into the fire-and-brimstone preacher he wants to become. Johnson, who has a beautiful voice and is also an accomplished guitarist, lets us see the fiery side of Denise's worldly ambitions.
The music is the main attraction, though, and besides Johnson on the guitar and Wood on the piano, the Sanders clan has some incredibly talented musicians on stage with them.
Music director Ryan Deal is an exceptional pianist. Sean Tarleton on bass, Katherine Walker on violin and Jim Duckworth on guitar, banjo and mandolin make up a first-class band.
With perceptive direction by Corey Mitchell, a beautifully evocative set by Adam York and perfectly period costumes, also by Mitchell, this deceptively simple comedy becomes an affectionate and engaging portrait of family and faith.