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A&E: Gospel, Garland and more

July 16, 2007

"Smoke on the Mountain" belongs-along with "Nunsense," "Forever Plaid," and a handful of others-to an interesting phenomenon in contemporary theater: Musicals that don't have Broadway pedigrees or familiar composers, yet celebrate long, popular runs with group sales and word-of-mouth buoying their box office.

Theater artists despise these shows because of their perceived pandering and artlessness. Theater managing directors love them because they bring in the cash.

As with many of these populist shows, "Smoke" (currently running at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre) ties its songs together with a loose plot: It's 1938 and the Sanders Family is booked to play a rural Baptist church in a town hit by hard times. As their concert progresses, we gain insight into the players as well as the congregation's pastor, who can't keep himself out of the musical action.

There's the breadwinning papa who learned about temptation when a rival retailer started selling liquor, and the no-nonsense mama, who gets hilariously lost in her religious metaphors as she offers a children's sermon. There's a set of twins. And there's an uncle who spent time in prison and shares a quietly moving monologue about the moment when he realized that when Jesus fed the multitudes, he fed everyone.

And then there's June. I'll get to June in a second.

First, I've got some ideas on why "Smoke" and its brethren connect with so many people.

They are clearly "we" shows. They look the audience in the eye. "We are in this together," they say. "Laugh with us and we will entertain you." Another reason: Their senses of humor are just off-center enough for your aunt to feel a little flustered but not enough to offend your reverend. And their hearts are pretty close to their sleeves.

Plus their music is designed to go down easy. In the case of "Smoke on the Mountain," the score consists See A&E next page entirely of pre-existing, old-timey hymns, including "The Church in the Wildwood" and "I'll Fly Away." Miss a word or two and you're OK.

Now, back to June.

It has been a long time since I've seen a performance that left me as grinningly happy as Sarah Hund's as the untalented Sanders kid. Looking like the bastard child of Olive Oyl and Miss Hathaway, June is relegated to tambourine, bell, and trainwhistle when she's not haplessly trying to provide sign-language accompaniment-even though there are no deaf congregants.

When June gets to finally share her own monologue, it's the Sanders family's least-likely star who reveals the worth of this show's simple gifts-and earns this production a sincere hallelujah.

"Beyond the Rainbow" recounts the life of Judy Garland as a series of flashbacks in the mind of the singer during her legendary Carnegie Hall comeback concert. And it's the structure that both weighs it down and, ultimately, provides its most powerful moment in the production offered here by Actors Theatre of Indiana at the Pike Performing Arts Center.

It makes sense that a Garland show should put performance of her familiar songs ("Get Happy," "The Man That Got Away," etc.) center stage-although the more we see of Jody Briskey performing the hits, the less engaging the impersonation/interpretation becomes. Despite a strong showing from Katy Gentry, doing the bulk of the dramatic work as Judy, the pain-filled flashbacks become grueling.

Support is mixed, with Chuck Goad and Bradley Reynolds effective in multiple parts and shrill Denise Jaeckel annoying in all. And the small cast leads to some confusion. A neophyte might well wind up believing that Vincent Minnelli left Garland to have an affair with studio mogul Louis B. Meyer.

As trying as this gets, the anticipated final rendition of "Over the Rainbow" hits just the right dramatic notes. A hopeful song that, in movie context, is about a young girl's dream that will soon be fulfilled, is transformed here into a painfully sad song about a woman contemplating why, oh, why she hasn't been able to get to that land where happy little bluebirds fly.

The strong moment, alas, is nearly ruined by theatrical pandering with the tacking on of "San Francisco," a happier song intended to end the production on an up note.

Roots music fans will want to track down a copy of "Wilderness Plots," a concept album based on the writings of Bloomington-based essayist Scott Russell Sanders. Featuring Tim Grimm, Carrie Newcomer, Krista Detor, Tom Roznowski and Michael White-all Indiana singersongwriters with their hearts in the land-the tunes focus on the settlement of the Ohio Valley between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Correction: It focuses on the people who settled the land, giving history an intriguing series of human faces. Newcomer is particularly strong, rising to the occasion with her best songwriting in years. Her "Biscuits and Butter," "One Woman and a Shovel," and "Healing Waters" would easily earn spots on a Newcomer greatest hits disc.

When schedules allow, the quintet has been performing the song cycle live. The next scheduled performance is Sept. 21st at Wabash College. If a gig is scheduled closer to Indy, I'll try to let you know.
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