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"Smoke" Gets in Your Ears

A winning cast fires up Barksdale's "Smoke on the Mountain" at Hanover Tavern.

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There may not be another play around that poses a greater casting challenge than "Smoke on the Mountain," the gentle gem of a musical playing at the Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern.

In addition to having top-notch vocal abilities, most of the actors in this show have to be multi-instrumentalists, able to trade off between fiddle, guitar, piano, mandolin and washboard while ripping through a couple dozen bluegrass-flavored tunes. They must also maintain a tricky balance with their characterizations because of a script that paints an affectionate, if slightly mocking, picture of rural Southern Baptists circa 1938.

With the wrong cast, this sweetly humorous romp could get downright campy. Luckily, veteran director Bruce Miller knows how to pick his players, and the result is a warm and winning production enriched with an expertly performed slate of lively songs.

The cast standouts are Julie Fulcher and H. Drew Perkins, who star as Vera and Burl Sanders, the parents presiding over the Sanders Family Singers. They've brought their show full of gospel songs to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina at the invitation of the newly appointed Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (Billy Christopher Maupin), who hopes to infuse his flock with new energy. The poor reverend may have gotten more than he bargained for, though, when the Sanderses' practice of offering personal "witness" reveals some surprising family secrets.

"Smoke" swings easily from somewhat silly — as the twins, Dennis and Denise (David Janeski and Emily Cole-Bitz), rustle up souls for the Lord in "Christian Cowboy" — to downright poignant, as Uncle Stanley (Eric Williams) tells the tale of his recent stint doing hard time. Subtle romantic sparks fly between the Rev. Oglethorpe and non-twin daughter, June (Aly Wepplo), and the whole gig nearly falls apart because of a breakout of something resembling dancing.

Perkins, who doubles as musical director, lays down some hot fiddle licks, and Cole-Bitz adds some ethereal tones with her harp playing. The show hums along enjoyably, if perhaps a little too evenly. Only when Fulcher brings the house down with her hilarious "children's devotional" near the end do you realize that you've been smiling rather than laughing through most of the play.

Not every monologue here is mined for the comic gold within. But when the whole cast comes together in beautiful harmony for songs such as "Whispering Hope," you can't really complain. "Smoke" catches fire only sporadically, but the warm glow it generates is satisfaction enough. S

"Smoke on the Mountain" is playing at the Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. through April 29, with selected Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees and occasional Tuesday-night performances. Tickets are $34-$38. 282-2620.

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