Daniel Emond, April Lee Uzarski, Elleon Dobias, Sarah Hund, Larry Tobias and Andrew Crowe in “Smoke on the Mountain,” a co-production between Portland Stage and Maine State Music Theatre. Photo by Mical Hutson

No, you’re not seeing double. Two productions of the gospel comedy “Smoke On The Mountain” are currently being performed in Maine. The week after Hackmatack Playhouse in Berwick opened its production, the Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage co-production started showing in Portland. The timing was sheer happenstance.

For theaters, having the same production run in a season – let alone at the same time – is far from ideal. For viewers, though, it’s a fun and interesting chance to see two interpretations of the same script, and MSMT/Portland Stage has put its own spin on the entertaining production.

The story revolves around a bluegrass gospel concert by the Sanders Family, returning to the stage after a five-year hiatus. Vera and Burl head up the family, joined by their three children – June, Denise and Dennis – and Burl’s brother, Stanley. The performance is being held at Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe’s church in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. The year is 1938.

Not surprisingly, the MSMT/Portland Stage production offers a slightly more polished look. Where Hackmatack’s pared-down set cleverly sparks the imagination, the one designed by Portland Stage Artistic Director Anita Stewart offers a quaint church setting with lots of eye-catching tangible details. The three-tier set has a couple church pews for authenticity and trees peaking in the church’s three windows. An attendance board brings a smile, boasting of a record of 50 people.

And while Hackmatack takes an overall lighthearted approach to the story, MSMT/Portland Stage director Jeff Stockberger has his characters undergo personal growth that highlights the transformative power of acceptance.

There are also some differences in cast and character portrayals that stand out. June – who is Vera’s sister in the Hackmatack show – is the eldest daughter at Portland Stage and an undeniable scene-stealer, as played by Sarah Hund.

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As June lends a variety of secondary instrumentation such as tambourine, cowbells, spoons and washboard, Hund’s feigned lack of musical aptitude and awkwardness are endlessly entertaining when paired with the obvious talent of the rest of the Sanders family. As a bonus, she “can’t sing,” but she “can sign,” and her emotive sign language is hilarious. She can’t help but steal the limelight, even when she’s a background character.

MSMT and Portland Stage have assembled a gifted cast to deliver the two dozen gospel songs. Their harmonies and vocals are gorgeous throughout, and there appears to be no end to their virtuosity as they rotate through a vast repertoire of instruments: banjo, acoustic guitar, standup bass, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, piano, autoharp and pocket trumpet. Their versatility and skill are awe-inspiring, and the varied instrumentation lends an infectious bluegrass country twang to the gospel songs.

The Sanders twins, Dennis (Daniel Emond) and Denise (Elleon Dobias), are wonderfully entertaining. Emond’s wide-eyed, somewhat neurotic character is pure joy, and Emond and Dobias’ duet of “Christian Cowboy” is a lot of fun to watch and listen to.

April Lee Uzarski and Larry Tobias take on the roles of Vera and Burl Sanders. The talented musicians lend a pious portrayal that emphasizes the musical’s message about the power of faith, music and forgiveness.

The production’s music director, Andrew Crowe, steps into the role of Stanley. Crowe beautifully tugs at the heartstrings and delivers captivating vocals that draw the audience into the moving story of his character’s checkered past.

Last, but certainly not least, John Vessels Jr. is the Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe. Where Hackmatack’s young pastor displays a delightful child-like exuberance, Vessels’ Oglethorpe is enthusiastic, but much more controlling. His need to be the center of attention is quite amusing, and the Sanders family affects a change on his character that’s thoroughly enjoyable to witness. Vessels tops off his performance with impressive operatic vocals that are dynamic and attention-grabbing.

MSMT/Portland Stage’s production is a feel-good blend of laughter, music and faith that leaves the audiences smiling and humming the show’s infectious gospel tunes as they walk out the door.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at: [email protected]
Twitter: @ahboyle


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