'Smoke on the Mountain' musical akin to Sat. night gospel sing

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. (BP)--Mix the style of a Broadway musical with the story of a Saturday night gospel sing in a rural church and the result is the hit production "Smoke on the Mountain."

After a year-and-a-half Off-Broadway run in The Lamb's Theatre in New York, Smoke on the Mountain has been performed on about 250 stages across the nation -- making it the second most performed play in regional theaters. The musical, set in a rural North Carolina Baptist church in 1938, was conceived/directed by Alan Bailey and written by Connie Ray, who played the lead character on the former sitcom, "The Torkelsons."

"When it played in New York, most of the audience had never been to a church like this," said Bailey, who grew up in Bradley Baptist Church near Macon, Ga., and now lives in Los Angeles. "One thing I've learned is that a guarantee of success in New York is to do something new or in a different way. They saw this as something new because they never had any experience with this setting.

"Whereas now, the primary appeal is to people most like the audience in that church would be."

Ruth Pollard, a member of First Baptist Church, Lathrop, Mo., is one such person. She recently organized an outing for several church members to see Smoke on the Mountain at the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park, Kan.

"My dad was a fiddle player, and the music was reminiscent of old times," Pollard said. "It's fun and wholesome."

Lisandro Gonzalez, pastor of the Missouri church, said the play appeals especially to senior adults. "They can remember this type of singing 40 and 50 years ago."

He added, "It's a very effective way to present the gospel outside the four walls of the church."

Smoke on the Mountain centers around the Sanders family. The setting is a Saturday night gospel sing in Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, N.C.

The Sanders family performs several bluegrass gospel songs during their first family singing in five years, including such standards as "I'll Fly Away" and "The Church in the Wildwood." Sprinkled throughout the musical is each family member's testimony.

The family interaction -- with each other and the audience (which is the church congregation) -- is what makes the play entertaining.

"People are able to see something of themselves in one of the characters up there on stage," said New Theatre actress Lori Blalock, who has played the part of June Sanders four times.

"It's about forgiveness and all the simple things in life; it's about getting along with your family. That's the beauty and charm of it."

Blalock, a member of Prairie Baptist Church, Prairie Village, Kan., added, "It's about life's lessons. It's uplifting. People can relate to the family. And while there's lots of the Bible [throughout the play], it's not pushed or forced. It's dealt with honestly. Truly, I've never heard of any complaints."

The musical's name comes from Psalm 104:32: "He who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke" (Psalm 104:32).

Though strongly Christian-based, the musical also appeals to non-Christians. Bailey said non-Christians discover they have things in common with people like the Sanders family.

"We're all really alike in terms that we learn to listen and accept other people without judgment," he said. "That's why they feel uplifted when they leave; it's about people with real faults, and ultimately, the characters learn that what they need most in life is to learn to listen."

When Bailey and Ray wrote the musical, their goal was to create a play that highlights what is funny about being Southern without making fun of it, and to share the message of God's love.

"Our intention was to do a piece about a church home," Bailey recalled. "People see their church as another home, their church family as another family. And we wanted to re-create the love and closeness that many churches have.

"It was important to us to paint a picture of a loving God -- it went along with the message of people struggling to be good Christians and family members because of the rewards of love that you find."

Bailey's idea for a singing in Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was based on memories of a church from his childhood. "I was inspired by the little church in North Carolina where my grandparents were members. They would have gospel sings, and everybody up there always seemed so perfect.

"I knew that they must be like any other family -- fuss and argue on the way home; so I wanted to explore a family and what it would be like to have to appear perfect, but not be -- thus, the Sanders family."

The idea continues to grow. Bailey said a play's performances usually peak two or three years after appearing in New York. Not so with Smoke on the Mountain. It continues to be in high demand. It is second only to "Pump Boys and Dinettes" in regional performances.

"I think one reason people keep coming back for more is because they discover just how great this music is," Bailey said. Characters play instruments such as the fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, banjo and harmonica.

"Particularly in musical theater, you never hear this kind of music. Southern gospel and bluegrass gospel have really been a revelation to a lot of people who have produced this play."

The reasons Kansas' New Theatre producer/director Richard Carrothers, who grew up Southern Baptist, continues to schedule Smoke on the Mountain is both business and personal. One, people keep requesting to see it. Two, "Every time I direct Smoke on the Mountain, I feel it's giving me the opportunity to witness, and I never get tired of that."

Carrothers plans to run the sequel in his theater later this year. The sequel, "Sanders Family Christmas," opened in 30 theaters in 1999. With the same setting and characters, the musical is set in 1941. "It's been long enough [since 1938] that the Sanderses can have developed a new set of problems," Bailey said. "But also it's December 1941, and the country has just gone to war, so there's a real reason everybody wants to huddle together -- why family members are leaving home -- as Dennis Sanders is."

The play features more bluegrass and Southern gospel music and includes Christmas carols.

A Smoke on the Mountain CD was released in 1998 by Daywind Music Group, including such gospel music artists as Cynthia Clawson, Mark Lowry, Jeff Steele, Jeff Easter and Jason Crabb.

(BP) photos available upon request from the Missouri Baptist newsjournal Word & Way.

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