By John Lyle Belden
For regular patrons of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre in northwest Indianapolis, just saying, “There’s a ‘Smoke on the Mountain’ show!” is enough to get many scrambling to contact the box office.
The popular original off-Broadway show centers on a gospel-singing family putting on a “sing” at a rural North Carolina church in the 1930s. Aside from seeing the interpersonal drama among the Sanders clan and sharing a few laughs, the audience is treated to a series of old-time hymns and gospel tunes, with the cast playing an array of instruments.
The sequel, “Sanders Family Christmas,” has the family returning to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church for a holiday sing in 1941, the last show before the Sanders’ son goes off to war.
The present production, “Smoke on the Mountain: Homecoming,” takes place in late 1945, with the war over and young Dennis (Will Boyajian) back with the family, following through on his service as a chaplain and a lifelong call to take the pulpit as the Mount Pleasant minister.
The departing pastor, the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (John Vessels), responded to a request to open a church in Texas and will leave the next day, taking his very pregnant wife, June (Sarah Hund), the Sanderses’ elder daughter. Burl and Vera Sanders (Bob Payne and Pam Pendleton) still have daughter Denise (Christina Rose Rahn), Dennis’ fraternal twin, now married with twins of her own, as well as Burl’s troubled brother, Stanley Sanders (Brian Gunter).
They are hosting one more sing before the Oglethorpes depart, but it becomes apparent that there are still a few issues to work out.
It helps that most of the cast is the same as past B&B “Smoke on the Mountain” productions, especially Vessels as the emotional and hyperactive Brother Mervin and Hund at her comic best as simple June, who provides the family band’s percussion, sometimes in hilariously inventive ways, and signs rather than sings — though some of her gestures might confuse any deaf audience members who happen by the church.
Boyajian and Rahn make their B&B debuts but manage to fit right in as though they had always played the Sanders twins, especially when circumstances force them to re-enact a song from when Dennis and Denise were very young.
It’s not all comedy; be prepared for some very serious moments of testimony and a lot of talk about Jesus. But this is what comes naturally in a musical with a song list that looks like one from a small-town Sunday school.
In fact, especially when Dennis or Stanley recall their darkest hours, it’s easy to forget that these are fictional characters. But the spirit (or Spirit, if you believe that way) of the play stays true to the memories of those of us who ever attended a little church in the backwoods -– or a hometown congregation anywhere.
One hopes that playwright Connie Ray would eventually see fit to have the Sanderses go see June and Mervin for a Texas-sized gospel sing, but for now we can enjoy witnessing the “Homecoming” daily except Mondays through Aug. 16 at 9301 N. Michigan Road, near the Pyramids. Call 317-872-9664 or see beefandboards.com.
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Review also appears in the July 23 edition of the Greenfield Daily Reporter.