Totem Pole audiences were taken to a lively church service Sunday with the opening of “Smoke on the Mountain.”
The seven-member ensemble had the congregation of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina clapping to the upbeat tunes, and chuckling at some of the Sanders family’s hilarious hijinks.
Though the show revolves around a Saturday Night Gospel Sing, the message of the show revolves around family, portraying each character’s journey to self-discovery and struggles with temptations and demons as the church prepares to enter the “modern world,” during the late 1930s.
The cast features local physician, Ken Griggs, from Chambersburg Imaging Associates, who appeared in more than 50 professional stage productions prior to his career in medicine. Griggs, who recently moved to the area, was approached by Totem Pole’s Producing Artistic Director Rowan Joseph to join the cast of professional actors from New York and around the country to portray the role of Uncle Stanley Sanders. Madison Hagler, who played Naphtali, one of the 12 brothers, in Totem Pole’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” last season, returns in the role of Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe, pastor of the fictional Mount Pleasant Baptist Church where the play takes place.
Playing the rest of the Sanders Family Singers are New York-based actors, Julia Hoffmann and Caleb Adams, as the twins Denise and Dennis Sanders, Malka Wallick as their sister, June Sanders, and Alison Rose Munn as Ma Vera Sanders. Kansas City-based actor, Michael Amoroso, plays the family’s patriarch, Burl Sanders.
The show features 24 rousing bluegrass songs played and sung by the Sanders Family, a traveling group making its return to performing after a five-year hiatus. Pastor Oglethorpe, the young and enthusiastic minister of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, has enlisted the Sanders Family in his efforts to bring his tiny congregation into “the modern world.”
Between songs, each family member “witnesses” – telling the story about an important event in their life. Songs include “No Tears in Heaven,” “Wonderful Time Up There,” “I’m Taking a Flight,” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Margretta Heidorn of Fayetteville said Sunday was the first time she had seen “Smoke on the Mountain.”
“It was very entertaining,” she said. “I was so surprised by the musical talent, and the show had a nice message.”
Maxine Vickers of Fayetteville said she and Heidorn make it to Totem Pole at least once or twice a year.
“I loved it! I loved the music!” she noted, adding she really enjoyed June and her sign language, and Uncle Stanley.
Roger Moul of Hanover said he thought the first act needed to be spiced up a little, but really thought the second act was very entertaining.
“I enjoyed it. It was nice,” added Phyllis Riley of Hanover.
Adams, who portrays “the boy” twin, Dennis, said this is his first time doing “Smoke on the Mountain.”
“It’s really grown on me more and more,” he said. “I love the music; I completely love bluegrass music! It was interesting to play a young kid who has been brought into the church by his parents, and seeing how kids identify with things.”
The cast rehearsed for a few weeks before opening the production on Sunday.
“The most challenging part was definitely getting the music down. I learned the mandolin for this show. Since I know how to play the guitar, I didn’t have much trouble learning it.”
The most rewarding part for Adams is when the cast sings, “I’ll Fly Away,” and he looks into the crowd, seeing the audience smiling and clapping along.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” he added.
This is Adams’ first time at Totem Pole, and he said he loves how friendly and fun everyone is. He added the fact that it’s a dog-friendly atmosphere makes it even more fun!
Hagler (Rev. Oglethorpe) said his dad was a pastor.
“I had that experience to draw from,” he said. “So, some of my father’s characteristics are exaggerated on the stage. He said he can’t wait to come and see his ‘Mini Me’ on stage.”
“I think it’s a show that anybody can enjoy,” Hagler added. “It’s a show that has heart. It portrays a family trying to be perfect and you see their flaws throughout. It’s funny because of how real it is!”
Hagler said the most challenging part for him was learning to play the accordion in two weeks!
“It was definitely a challenge! I was scared,” he laughed. “I play piano, so that was very helpful. But with the accordion, you have the keys with one hand and all of the buttons with the other. I learned it within the first few days. It had to be a quick turnaround.”
The most rewarding part of the production for Hagler is hearing the audience laugh.
“The audience is such an integral part of the show,” he noted. “When you see and hear the audience enjoying every aspect of the show, it’s really rewarding to see.”
Hagler said he loves performing at Totem Pole, and would definitely return.
“They treat the actors like royalty,” he said. “Everyone from the backstage crew and staff to the office staff respects us.”
Hagler said if you’re looking for a good time, come see “Smoke on the Mountain.”
“This is one show you will definitely regret missing,” he added.
Producing Artistic Director Rowan Joseph said if you’re looking for tickets to the show, reserve them early because the shows are selling out.
Munn (Vera) said she is having a fun time at Totem Pole.
“I love the cast! They are a great group of people to work with,” she said. “It’s a great theater to work for, and it’s in a beautiful area. I live in New York and this is like a vacation for me.”
Munn noted the show is good for anyone, whether they are religious or not.
“In the end, it’s about family, and the love and connections we have,” she said.
The most challenging aspect of this production for Munn is bringing all of the elements together with all of the music incorporated in the script. Munn said she, Hoffmann and Adams have done the show before. “But, it’s still a bit of a challenge to get to that point.”
The most rewarding for Munn is acting on stage with these fellow actors every day.
Hoffmann, who portrays “the girl” twin, Denise, said she grew up in Mechanicsburg and was excited to make her debut at Totem Pole.
“This is one of those shows that I really enjoy,” Hoffmann said. “I played Vera before, and I knew I was in the wrong part. I told myself the next time I did this show, I wanted to play Denise. She’s just very fun and bubbly, and doesn’t know some things she’s doing wrong.”
The most challenging aspect of the show for Hoffmann is singing while playing the violin.
“The most rewarding part is being on stage together and everything clicks. The warmness of singing with everyone and making eye contact with the audience. It’s very special.”
Hoffmann’s mother, Della Cowall, said she loved the show.
“I thought it was a really tight ensemble. I could tell that they were listening to each other, and working with each other,” she noted.
Cowall said Hoffmann’s career is blossoming, and she’s very fortunate to be an actress who has strong music skills.
“She has a really good work ethic, and works really hard,” she added.
Cowall said the Totem Pole grounds are beautiful, and feels going to the shows are a great way to spend the summer.
Amoroso said he really enjoys the message of “Smoke on the Mountain.”
“More than anything, it’s about family,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to do the show. It’s about the family and the dynamics they are facing with the kids, and Stanley who tries to be good, but is judged, and how Burl goes about understanding that and helping him.”
Amoroso said he is thankful to be able to do the show because he is walking away with more tools as a singer and musician.
“I am impressed by any Burl who takes on this role,” he noted. “I was reading over the music, and thought, ‘How the heck am I going to do this?’” he laughed.
Amoroso said he leaned on his theater family to help him through the learning process.
“It’s about balance,” he said. “It’s something you have to stay in the moment with and ahead at the same time. I’m considered the band leader. It’s humbling. Another challenge I had was learning to play a dad. I had to remind myself that I am the father figure for this family, and that has me walking away with a lot more confidence.”
Amoroso said Totem Pole is one of the most beautiful places because of the nature, theater and, most importantly, the people.
“Everyone here has passion and respects each other, and at the end of the day, this place clearly has an audience that loves it.”
Wallick (June) said she is not a musician, and feels very inspired as she watches her fellow actors work.
A challenge she experienced with this show was learning some percussion in two weeks.
“At first, it caused some level of noise that expressed panic. But, then it turned into the excitement to learn something new! This has been a blast! I’ve loved every moment of it. Everybody has been a pleasure to work with every step of the way.”
Mallick said she identifies with her character because June is a really hard worker who gets joy out of her family’s success, “which is something I latch onto in my own life.”
“I just think it’s a show that brings joy,” she said. “Sometimes that’s the most important thing you can give to people.”
“Smoke on the Mountain” runs through July 7 at Totem Pole Playhouse, 9555 Golf Course Road, Fayetteville. Purchase tickets online at www.totempoleplayhouse.org, or call the Box Office at (717) 352-2164.