By: Margaret Butler
Tryon Little Theater presents characters over caricatures in Gospel musical
It’s the summer of 1938, and nestled in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina is Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. The congregation is humming and dressed in their Sunday best, toting potluck baskets and anticipating the upcoming Family Sing, a long-cherished tradition consisting of touring musical groups that treat the community to lively revues.
Pastor Oglethorpe welcomes the Sanders Family Singers to the tiny parish. The congregation floods the room with rollicking melodies of classic hymns and mountain traditionals. Mixed in with “Amazing Grace” is the wistful, foot-stompingly catchy “I’ll Fly Away” (later a bluegrass-gospel standard).
In between the lines we uncover the complexities of the family’s relationships — and get a glimpse of their authentic selves beneath the veneer.
“The play is chock-full of family dynamics,” comments Carol Cox, the director of Tryon Little Theater’s production of Smoke on the Mountain. The characters include an opinionated mother and father, a starry-eyed daughter, a misunderstood daughter, a headstrong son, and their fresh-from-prison uncle. Competition, rivalry, and stubbornness ensue — and, ultimately, acceptance prevails.
“It’s easy for the script alone to live in the 2-D realm,” Cox admits. However, the cast aims to steer clear of caricatures and delve into the respective backstories to create realistic and recognizable characters.
The misunderstood daughter, June Sanders (played by Lori Lee), wasn’t graced with the music gene. Her desire to belong encourages her to include impromptu sign language for the hearing impaired. The problem is, “she doesn’t know how to sign,” Lee quips. But June’s character contributes comedy in a naive, heartwarming way. “Despite feeling neglected, she still has such a positive outlook. She’s somebody you want to be friends with,” says Lee.
Smoke on the Mountain reminds modern audiences that desires, dreams, and fears transcend decades. “Especially now, people are searching for authenticity and their place in that,” Cox says. Written in 1990 by Connie Ray and conceived by Alan Bailey with musical arrangements by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick, the play was an obvious choice for Tryon Little Theater when they went seeking a down-to-earth, lighthearted production to open the season.
The cast has been busy rehearsing since January. Along with memorization and blocking, all the musical numbers must be learned. “It’s a lot of work,” confesses Pam McNeil, music director. Along with piano, stand-up bass, and two guitars, she says “a few musical surprises” will make an appearance, too.
The relatable nature of the piece is what motivates Cox and the cast. McNeil adds, “I guarantee, someone in the audience will say, ‘I know someone like you.’”
Tryon Little Theater presents Smoke on the Mountain at the Workshop Theater (516 South Trade St., Tryon) for two weeks: March 3-6 and March 10-13. Show times are 7:30pm Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 3pm on Sundays. Tickets are $25/adults, $12/children under 18. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit tltinfo.org.