Plaza Theatre’s ‘Smoke’ signals a hot show
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and here’s hoping you get a burning desire to get your hands on the hottest tickets in town to see “Smoke on the Mountain, Homecoming,” the current production of the Plaza Theatre Company, playing through Friday at the Plaza Theatre in Cleburne.
This one is not simply Plaza-quality good, it’s outstanding.
Usually, humor and hymns are not paired in a musical, but this one works because of the setting — a church — the occasion — a send-off for the pastor and welcome to the new one — and the terrific voices of the Plaza troupe which blends together in 24 church stalwarts such as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Standing on the Promises,” and “I Love to Tell the Story.”
Think side-splitting comedy during song service at your church, where every hymn is sung by the Gaither Vocal Band or Ernie Haase and Signature Sound — when they really want to harmonize on an old favorite.
The setting is Saturday night, Oct. 6, 1945, two months after V-J Day, at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Chatham County, N.C. The audience serves as the congregation and is welcomed by Miss Maude (Priscilla Nix) and Miss Myrtle (Taffy Geisel), the Bible-toting, scowling, every-church-has-them little-ol’-ladies who have occupied their seats forever in “Amen Corner.”
The story — the third of a trilogy — is a farewell to Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe (David Phillips) and his wife, June (once again played, thankfully, by the great Camille Shaw), who have accepted a call to “Wildarado,” to pastor a newly established Baptist church in the wild and woolly plains of West Texas.
The farewell is organized by Burl and Vera Sanders, (Aaron Siler and KL Fletcher), patriarch and matriarch of the Sanders Family Gospel Singers, which includes grown twins Dennis (Stephen Singleton) and Denise (doublecast with Jill Baker and Kelly Nickell) and would include older sister June (Shaw) if only she could sing.
But she can’t. Instead, she signs the words — not according to American Sign Language-established images — but according to her own, unique and hilarious imagination and invention.
The going-away service for the Oglethorpes is also a reunion for the Sanders family, who haven’t sung together for five years while Dennis went off to war, Denise had a family — she and her off-stage husband are parents to a pair of rambunctious boys, also off-stage — and Stanley (JaceSon Barrus for the seventh time, a role he was born to play),
Burl’s elbowbending brother who was good enough to break away from the family to embark on a solo singing career — but was actually serving time for his wayward ways.
The Sanders celebrate by quoting Bible texts to fit every situation and spontaneously breaking into hymns, accompanied on the piano by musical director Cheri Dee Mega and a combination of Bob Gracey on the bass, Parker Barrus on guitar and banjo, and Howard Geisel on fiddle.
Each member of the family takes a few minutes to deliver a monologue, a sort-of testimonial or brief summary of their station in life.
The themes are poignant (Barrus), historical and philosophical (Siler), and revealing (Fletcher, Singleton, Baker and Shaw).
All are delivered with the emotion, timing and passion that has become synonymous with the talent on display at the Plaza Theatre Company.
Siler, who along with Barrus is one of the founding producers of the PTC, is usually content to play a supporting role on stage while taking major responsibilities off-stage.
This time, you can see why the theater, along with his family, is his life. He not only is perfect as the family patriarch, his harmonizing with Barrus and Fletcher on “A Little at a Time,” and with Fletcher on “The Far Side Banks of Jordan,” is really, really good.
Regular Plaza attendees know Barrus can sing from his lead in “Will Rogers Follies,” but in “Smoke,” he delivers a great monologue about his wayward life, followed by a solo of “Come Around,” which gets right to the point.
Meanwhile, Fletcher, Singleton, and Baker are outstanding singers and are a delight to listen to in everything they do.
There are some silly songs, too, such as Baker, Singleton and Shaw collaborating on “The Royal Telephone,” and Phillips and Shaw in “Round-Up in the Sky,” and some serious songs, especially Baker’s rendition of “Children Talk to Angels.”
You’ll enjoy Fletcher’s take on a “children’s story” about Jesus being the pilot of our lives and the accompanying toy airplane demonstrations.
Woven throughout the musical numbers is the “signing” of Shaw, who is funny, funny, funny as she uses her entire body and a few clever props to convey the meaning of the words. Watch her facial expressions, the expressions of the actors on the periphery of the main action and — every now and then — catch a glimpse of the ladies in Amen Corner as they react with shock and disgust to just about everything.
Many who have seen the recent movie “Hacksaw Ridge” will find the monologue of Dennis (Singleton) very interesting as he tells why, while serving in the Army, he decides to become a pastor.
He relates the story of Jessie Jakes, a fellow soldier whose observance of his Sabbath and desire to read his Bible result in ridicule from the men.
The harassment continued, Singleton says in his monologue, until the unit was fighting the Japanese on Okinawa and Jakes saved many of the men, lowering them one-by-one over an escarpment, telling his commanders to let him climb back up and “save just one more.”
“Hacksaw Ridge” fans will recognize the story immediately — even the alliteration in the name, “Jessie Jakes,” to that of Desmond Doss, Army conscientious objector whose harassment for observing his Sabbath and reading his Bible was followed by his actions on Okinawa — saving more than 75 men by lowering them over an escarpment, losing his Bible and the entire fighting cease while soldiers looked for and found it.
Listen for it when Singleton delivers his monologue.
This is a must see.
Conceived by Alan Balley and written by Connie Ray with musical arrangements by Mike Craver, “Smoke on the Mountain, Homecoming,” directed by Taffy Geisel (one of the little old ladies in Amen corner) with technical direction and light design by Cameron Barrus; sound design by Parker Barrus, costumes designed by Tina Barrus; set design, painting and construction by JaceSon Barrus, Jody Barrus and Cody Vernon, is presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 9 at the Plaza Theatre, 111. S. Main in Cleburne.
Tickets — $18 for adults, $16 for senior adults age 65 and older and students, and $13 for ages 12 and under — are on sale at the box office and can be reserved at 817-202-0600, or purchased online at www. plaza-theatre.com.