Connecticut ~ Review: "Smoke on the Mountain" at WAMS

by Nancy Sasso Janis, OnStage Connecticut Critic

Senior Showcase at Waterbury Arts Magnet School (WAMS) is a chance for the graduating seniors to show off their talents before they leave their high school. This year, Bruce Post directed ten very talented senior class members in

Smoke on the Mountain

, billed as a "bluegrass gospel musical." The show was an Off-Broadway that was written by Connie Ray and conceived by Alan Bailey,

Smoke on the Mountain

tells the story of a Saturday Night Gospel Sing at a country church in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains in 1938.  The show features two dozen rousing bluegrass songs played and sung by the Sanders Family, a traveling group making its return to performing after a five-year hiatus. A bluegrass/gospel juke box musical set in the thirties that is at times touching and surprisingly funny at the same time is not what I expected when I heard the title.It also was a little concerned when I learned that the show would be presented in the drama classroom at WAMS, but it was all good. The straight backed chairs for the audience in the second row were arranged on raised platforms on three sides of the large classroom, so everyone could see the students in front of the minimal set and the excellent five-piece band led by music director John Mobilio. Rough hewn windows were created for the interior of the Baptist church and floorboards drawn on the classroom floor. Not surprising in this school, there was excellent lighting that was perfectly utilized by designer Annie Scheuermann.

Members of the cast of 'Smoke on the Mountain' at WAMS take their bows

Pastor Oglethorpe, here played by the inimitable MacKenzie Huneke, is the young and enthusiastic minister of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. This female pastor has asked the here multi-racial Sanders Family to aid in her efforts to bring her tiny congregation into "the modern world," complete with dancing. Between the rousing songs (mostly old hymns) sung in tight harmony by all the cast members, each family member "witnesses" -- telling a story about an important event in their life. While they would like to appear to be the perfect family, weaknesses are soon revealed in mostly funny ways.

Ms. Huneke was both charming and funny as the pastor, especially when she was "one upped" by a member of the Sherman family. Gerald Mullins was a riot as the patriarch of the family and Morgen Sherwood was his bible versed wife. The adorable Alizae Powell and Olivia Blazas played twin sister who were quite different. Justin Normandin was Burl's wayward brother with a wonderful singing voice and Anna Doucette played a third daughter named June. Katie Keane served as the band extra, which was a little more than a pit singer and a little less than a character.

Special mention to the two young ladies in the "Amen corner," really just two seats near the classroom door. Dressed in period finery right down to the white gloves, these two church elders were not fans of the proposed changes to the little church. Miss Maude (Blesing Zenick) and Miss Myrtle (Tess Hudak) disapproved without uttering a line throughout the first act and nearly fainted when the dancing began. These two were the perfect running joke and they never broke character.

Kudos also to the bluegrass band, with Mr. Mobilio on upright bass, Gary Wikfors on mandolin, Richard Neal on guitar, David Kaye on banjo, and Sofia Chiarandini on fiddle. They made a joyful noise that never overpowered the singers.

The senior class members did a great job with this unusual piece. I will miss their talents when they move on in June. The final performance of Smoke on the Mountain at WAMS will be Sunday at 2:00pm and tickets are available at the door of the third floor classroom.