This is the perfect weekend for Lansing Community College’s latest “Summer Stage Under the Stars” offering. Warm and muggy well into the evenings, the weather literally helps set the atmosphere for the smokin’ "Smoke on the Mountain."
The setting is a North Carolina Baptist church in June, 1938. The outdoor set is a big, realistically-rendered, slightly rustic church interior. Between that and a naturally hot and humid night, it is easy to feel like a part of the congregation, which is the intention. There is no fourth wall, as the cast present a musical church service in real time.
The play opens with Pastor Oglethorpe (Phil Ashbrook), a slightly beefy, slightly nervous, people-pleasing shepherd apologizing to his flock, which has gathered for a test-run of a musical service. Oglethorpe sees himself as an innovator, trying to move his congregation just a wee bit into the modern era by introducing them to a traveling family gospel group.
The Sanders Family Singers are waylaid by a bus accident, causing the good Pastor to sweat and fumble to fill time, soon to be saved by the frantic entrance of eldest daughter June Sanders (Lindsay Palinsky), who explains how the bus overturned in a ditch full of cucumbers. Thus begins a running joke about the town’s main source of income, the Pleasant Pickle Company.
Palinsky is extremely charming as she identifies herself as the one who “doesn’t sing, I sign.” She trades off playing percussion and signing songs with great concentration. (Coincidentally, the sign language interpreters who will be signing the performance for real on Sunday night were on hand to familiarize themselves with the show. I was compelled to ask these experts about Palinsky’s signing skill, which they said was accurate. We agreed that her task to learn signing for the play was probably more challenging to master than singing or memorizing lines.)
The rest of the family soon arrives and kicks off the hootenanny. The play is light on plot, heavy on feel-good, old-timey spirituals. Between songs, each family member gets a chance to “testify,” telling a slight but characterizing tale. The best belong to daughter Denise (Corrina Van Hamlin), who tells of running away to the big city to audition for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, and Uncle Stanley’s (Jeff Boerger) story of meeting a gentle giant while incarcerated.
Just when a moment strays toward hokiness, someone drops a quirky comedic bomb. When matriarch Vera’s (Leslie Hull) overreaching analogy about junebugs, lemonade and Christ begins to cross over into oh-my-gawd eye-rolling territory, the bugs hilariously save us from Vera’s salvation. Much like Peppermint Creek’s “Altar Boyz” about a Christian boy-band, even the most devote agnostic will fall under the spell of this cast. The characters are so disarmingly sincere one can’t help but respect their faith in faith.
While proud parents Vera and Burl Sanders (Andy Callis) do enjoy the limelight, they are not presented as modern-day showbiz parents whoring out their kids for 15 minutes of fame. It would be easy to take the play down that cynical road, but director John Lepard — who performed with his family’s traveling band as a youth — brings his experience to the work to express the true joy that comes from playing great music with people whose company one enjoys.
“Smoke on the Mountain” has the feel-good musical vibe of last summer’s “Hank Williams: Lost Highway," minus the booze, drugs, pain and tragedy. What it lacks in gravitas it makes up for in good, clean, family fun.
"Smoke on the Mountain" continues at 8 p.m. nightly at Lansing Community College's Amphitheater through Sunday, July 11. All performances are free. Call (517) 483-1488 for more information.