For those looking for a vacation from our irony-drenched, celebrity-obsessed popular culture, the Barksdale Theatre offers a two-hour respite in the form of “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming,” playing at its Hanover Tavern location.
This third musical installment in the low-key adventures of the singing Sanders Family is a virtual carbon copy of the original “Smoke on the Mountain,” meaning that it's full to overflowing with peppy bluegrass-infused gospel tunes occasionally interrupted by interludes of Christian witness and minor incursions of plot.
But there have been some changes. It's 1945, just two months after the end of World War II, and the Sanderses are visiting North Carolina's Mount Pleasant Baptist Church to see their daughter, June (Aly Wepplo), off to west Texas where her husband, the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (Billy Christopher Maupin) has accepted the calling to preach. June is hugely pregnant, causing consternation from her mother, Vera (Kelly Kennedy), and some sisterly tension with a mother of twins, Denise (Emily Cole). Meanwhile, June's brother Dennis (David Janeski) has returned from military service to take over the Mount Pleasant ministry from Mervin, and Uncle Stanley (Eric Williams) has mysteriously shown up out of nowhere.
Overseeing the proceedings is the Sanders paterfamilias, Burl, played by the production's musical director, H. Drew Perkins. Almost everyone in the cast is a multi-instrumentalist, switching between guitar, mandolin, bass and piano with apparent ease; Cole's even a whiz on the harp. Perkins leads this lively band with amazing composure, while also lending an Andy Griffith-style homespun charm to his characterization of Burl. The music is a consistent delight but is most effective when the cast joins together in sweet harmonies for heart-tugging ballads such as “Everything You'll Need.”
As Oglethorpe, Maupin presents the most well-rounded character and delivers a large share of the laughs with his earnest but sometimes overwrought tending to his spiritual flock. The most compelling family member, however, is Stanley, particularly as portrayed by Williams. Stanley has struggled with his faith and Williams' plainspoken and emotional delivery of his witness will bring tears to many eyes.
The script provides less material for the Sanders women, though Wepplo makes the most of June's comic sidelight status. Vera once again is relegated to the children's devotional, a squandering of Kennedy's talents. The action plays out on a homey set (designed by Terrie and David Powers), warmly lighted by Kenny Mullens. The slavish adherence to the “Smoke on the Mountain” formula can be a little disheartening but the familiar echo of productions past will be a joyous noise to many. S
“Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming” plays at the Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, through Nov. 7. Call 282-2620 or go to barksdalerichmond.com for tickets.