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Production Reviews

Smoke on the Mountain, Fall '08

Sing-Driven Thing: A tuneful evening from Mustard Seed Theatre reviewed by Paul Friswold
November 3, 2008 Riverfront Times

Somewhere between Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas and the hardscrabble Appalachian folk of Will Oldham exists the world of Smoke on the Mountain. Better to describe it that way, because if you call it a "gospel musical full of witnessing and down-home faith," people like me (not a Christian, not a fan of gospel, not a fan of witnessing) will drag their feet or stay away in droves. And that would be a shame, because a gift like Smoke on the Mountain is not something to pooh-pooh.

It's strange how we label things for our own comfort level; perhaps that's the great lesson of Smoke on the Mountain. Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's loving homage to rural life is thin on plot but long on memorable moments and crackling performances - and somewhere in those moments you find yourself changing your perception of these characters and what these songs mean.

The story is nothing more than this: The Sanders Family Singers show up at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church to perform on a hot night in 1938 at the request of slightly progressive Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (Christopher Hickey). The old ladies of the church reluctantly allow the performance, feeling that "a Saturday-night sing" should never take place in a church, even if it's the sort of gospel/praise show the Sanders have in mind.

Director Deanna Jent has assembled a very fine cast of comic actors who can sing and play instruments. On any stage in any bar in town, you'd pay to see this cast just do the songs - they're that good. Deborah Sharn and Christopher Limber play Ma and Pa Sanders (respectively), and their voices complement one another with a tenderness that is easy to take for granted. As the twins Dennis and Denise, Dylan Duke and Jennifer M. Theby bring a competitive sibling edge, as well as some excellent mandolin-picking from Duke. He also delivers a solid testimonial that veers from hesitant to rapturous to hilarious, a young man who's gifted with spiritual fervor but not so much self-confidence.

And then there's sister June. Unable to sing, June (Colleen Backer) signs the lyrics for the benefit of the deaf audience members. There are none, of course, but that doesn't dim her ardor for her responsibilities; the fact that her signs are of her own device, graphic and uproarious in their blatant falsity, consistently generates the largest laughs of the evening. Backer's "I'm here for my family" smile and serious devotion to her "art" is impeccable.

While many of the songs are comic in nature ("Christian Cowboys," and the glorious "Blood Medley," for example), it falls to Uncle Stanley (Tim Schall) to plumb the heart of this Mustard Seed Theatre production. An ex-con back in the family after a long absence, Stanley has doubts about his ability to "stick it out" as a Christian and as part of the family. Schall's performance of "Everyone Home but Me" is plaintive, wounded, lonely and still hopeful. It's more than his singing; Schall's stubbornly pursed mouth, his downcast eyes that lift slowly skyward as he reaches the end, create a full portrait of a man unsure of himself but willing to keep going.

That's the subtle persistence of Smoke on the Mountain. You may go reluctantly, you may doubt you'll enjoy it, but once Burl and Vera lead their family into the first song, you'll be glad you stuck it out.

 

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Review

By Judith Newmark

On Friday, Mustard Seed Theatre opened its second season with "Smoke on the Mountain," a bluegrass gospel musical that owes its wide popularity to an unusual combination: It's funny, but it's never mean.

Director Deanna Jent employs a light hand with "Smoke," a perennial hit written by Connie Ray and Alan Bailey. It takes place in 1938 at a little Baptist church near the Blue Ridge Mountains. The young pastor (Christopher Hickey) likes to try new things, so he has invited the Singing Sanders Family to lead the congregation in a Saturday Night Sing.

The format is simple: a lot of music, punctuated by personal stories. The traditional songs ("I'll Fly Away," "Christian Cowboy," "I Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now," etc.) are delivered with verve by music director Joe Schoen on piano, and by the actors, many of whom play instruments, too.

The stories, variously humorous and poignant, root the Sanders clan in its time and place. The father (Christopher Limber) describes the temptation a beer salesman posed; one of the daughters (Jennifer M. Theby) recalls her disappointment at an "audition" for "Gone with the Wind" that turned out to be nothing but a big publicity stunt.
Deborah Sharn as the mother, Tim Schall as the uncle and Dylan Duke as the son also shine in their solo turns, and Ann Cailteux and Kirsten Wylder are delightful as a pair of skeptical Baptist ladies. (We in the audience make up the rest of the congregation.)

But the one you can't take your eyes off of is June Sanders, played with insouciant flair by Colleen Backer. June, the other daughter, doesn't sing well. Instead, her role is to sign the shows (which, in 1938, certainly puts the Sanders family in the forefront of the disability-rights movement.) But she doesn't actually know ASL, so she makes up her own signs. Backer's interpretations of lambs and angels are truly unforgettable, not to mention her version of a country hymn called "The Filling Station." She's utterly charming.

And so is the show. All kinds of theatergoers can feel comfortable with "Smoke on the Mountain." If they didn't grow up in the Protestant tradition that inspired Ray and Bailey, they won't feel excluded; if they did, they won't feel insulted. Although Off-Broadway, where "Smoke" was a hit, may seem further from the Blue Ridge than geography alone can explain, this warm-hearted show bridges the gap with good nature, good music and a good time.

jnewmark@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8243

 

Measure for Measure - Spring '08

Why is Shakespeare still being performed with regularity? Because when it's presented as thoughtfully and passionately as Mustard Seed Theatre's production of Measure for Measure, it teaches you more about yourself than ten years of therapy (and there are more laughs, as well).

Director Deanna Jent and her abundantly gifted cast took the raw material of the play (What is justice? What is morality? Who is fit to determine either? Can mercy be taught?) and released each idea into the audience like birds on the wing.

Adrift on that lovely iambic pentameter, they flitted and swooped about, inviting us to examine them and apprehend the truth of them, even when that truth was at odds with what we would have ordinarily called truth. And then with as cunning a whistle as you can imagine, Jent summoned these ideas to alight on the stage again, wrapped in the guise of characters buffoonish and bold and crass and desperate and chastened. And then she released them all in a thunderclap of clarity that stilled questions of justice, morality and mercy, leaving only compassion to raise its voice in triumph.

 

Welcome to the Moon and Other Plays - Spring '07 Production

KDHX  Review

Reviewed by Mark Bretz

Recently St. Louis audiences have had the opportunity to observe the development of contemporary playwright John Patrick Shanley from two viewpoints. Last week, Shanley's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama from 2004, Doubt, played on the expansive stage at The Fox.

Currently, Shanley's professional debut effort published in 1982, Welcome to the Moon and Other Plays, is being performed by Fontbonne University. You'd be hard-pressed to find much in common in these two works, other than the apparent knack of the playwright to establish situations which demand our respect or invite our curiosity.

Welcome to the Moon is really more a theatrical exercise than an actual play, as it consists of six brief one-act works that consume little more than an hour to execute. These amusing vignettes are set in myriad surroundings, from a saloon in the Old West to a Bronx bar to the barren apartment of a destitute poet.

Still, what is lacking in depth is replaced by the insouciance and infectious glee of the playwright, who revels in quirky little situations. In the handsome and engaging production directed with flair and finesse by Emily Immer, a sextet of delightful performers entertains the audience with a series of winning little portrayals.

Matt Belt, for example, is equally at home as a clueless poet or a loud-mouthed tavern owner. Christie Blewett has fun as a flirtatious young woman surprised by the affections of an unknown admirer, or as the "good girl" trying to break up a duel between two cowboys. Bess Moynihan shines as the "bad girl" of the West and as a bored and unrefined bartender in the Bronx.

Mike Vincent is appealing as a young man determined to reveal his love to a distant woman, while Natasha Toro sparkles in a bit about a determined young woman who befriends a lonely young man who reminds her of the Russian writer Dostoevsky. She scores again as a gum-popping babe who still holds the heart of a neurotic former high school classmate, played in fitfully eccentric style by Craig Hinders.

All of the players segue in and out of their small scenes while establishing the set for the next theatrical bon mot. They're mostly barefoot and dressed in shades of black and white, and give themselves whole-heartedly into the spirited choreography of Kate Marie Watkins. Vincent's set design uses the moon as both backdrop and underpinning in a Daliesque fashion, nicely lit by Dominque Gallo. Trisha Bakula provides the "greatest hits" sound design of the playwright's life that serves to remind us where we've been and who we are.


King Lear - Spring '06 semester production

KDHX  Review

Reviewed by Daniel Higgins

King Lear is always an ambitious and risky undertaking, even more so than most of Shakespeare's other plays. The fullest realization of this text requires several near-geniuses in the cast. Fontbonne University and director Deanna Jent are to be commended for taking on the challenge, and for the degree of success the current production does attain. It is regrettable, then, that the production as a whole is as noticeably uneven as it is.

Some elements of the production are outstanding: the set and costume designs, by Daniel Lanier and KDHX Performing Arts critic Teresa Doggett, respectively, evoke a bleak pagan Britain better than any I've seen before. The mood thus established enhances the rest of what's good in this production. We begin with excellent performances from KDHX Performing Arts critic Steve Callahan as Gloucester and local Equity actor Travis Estes as Edmund. To the extent that college theater should lend prestige to the school, the performances of Fontbonne graduates Rory Lipede as Cordelia, Julie Venegoni as Regan, and Jenn Bock as Kent serve admirably. Richard Lewis is adequate to the task of playing Lear, a role that routinely defeats actors (most who play the king are not adequate, or very close to adequate, to this supremely difficult role).

But the range of talent within this production is remarkably broad, and here is the cause of the unevenness. Dominique Gallo's performance as Edgar is nearly perfect in the scenes in which Edgar is posing as "Poor Tom," but in Edgar's other scenes it can only be called eccentric in the extreme. Some of the lesser roles are rendered seemingly carelessly and sometimes with an amateurish stiffness, which undermines some entire scenes. Although there are a number of individual scenes that work outstandingly well, the unevenness of the casting does ultimately compromise the power of the piece as a whole. This is not to say that this production compares particularly unfavorably to others I've seen. In fact, it's as good a stage production of King Lear as any I can recall.

By way of disclaimer, I will mention that the company includes some I would call friends or friendly acquaintances. Although I believe I've been impartial, I make mention of the fact in the interest of full disclosure.

Mustard Seed Theatre http://www.mustardseedtheatre.com/