Much Smoke, Little Light

If you grew up among conservative Protestants, you'll recognize that the producers of this musical comedy set in a tiny country parish get the details right: the uncomfortable wooden pews, the preacher's Scripture-peppered patter between hymns, the disapproving old maids frowning at any mention of dancing, testifying that takes on a meandering life of its own, the plethora of baptism announcements, the tender prayers together, and the simple act of participating in something bigger than yourself.

In Smoke on the Mountain, the unexamined passions of a talented family of bluegrass musicians make them go into a meltdown during a gospel concert. That setup could lead to a sly examination of religiosity, but the story never rises above simple-minded parody. The abundant musical numbers—consisting of standards and originals—are lively enough, but whenever the actors are required to put down their guitars and utter lines from Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's hugely stupid script, the show grinds to a halt.

Most of the evening is like an extended Hee Haw skit under David Hemsley Caldwell's uneven direction. There are exceptions: Linda Kerns' snappy, boisterous bit about June bugs and Tess Hartman's exuberantly silly sign-language sequences are the most obvious. What one really wishes for is the quality of writing seen in Don Bryant Bailey's beautifully performed monologue about his character's time in prison. It's a badly needed grace note that makes the unfunny script disappear for a blessed moment, humanizes the poorly sketched cartoons onstage, and briefly allows us the only real chance to give a damn the entire evening.

Yep, believe it or not, it's soul that's missing from this musical. All performers are graced with good voices and the skill to play several different instruments, but after sitting through the umpteenth song performed without the vibrancy so inherent in this style of music, the fact that you feel so little makes it clear that what the show needs is to be a little less white-bread. Casting the show with black gospel singers—now there's an idea. You might see God in that version.

Smoke on the Mountain at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, (714) 994-6150. Opens Fri. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 11. $35.
 
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