YADKINVILLE — The Willingham Theatre at the Yadkin Cultural Arts Center will kick off its spring theater series on Friday with a production of the gospel musical “Smoke on the Mountain.” The show already is sold out for the opening night performance, but tickets are still available for evening shows on Feb. 8 and 15 and matinees on Feb. 9 and 16.
“Smoke on the Mountain” is set in the year 1938 and tells the story of traveling gospel musicians, The Sanders Family, who are visiting Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. One of the unique things about this play, according to cast member Donna Bissette, is that the audience is a part of the play.
“They aren’t the audience,” Bissette said. “They are the congregation and become a part of the show. And because of that, they feel the love the Sanders family has for each other and the genuineness of what they want to share with them.”
Bissette is active in community theater productions across the region and has performed with various groups including, Twin City Stage in Winston-Salem and Foothills Theatre in Elkin. She is playing the role of June Sanders, which she also played in Lewsiville in the original production and the sequel show, “Smoke on the Mountain: Homecoming.”
Playing a fun and likable character like June is what Bissette said is the most fun thing about acting. June is one of the more comedic roles in the show but, according to Bissette, “she is very sincere and isn’t trying to be funny.” Bissette’s favorite song in the show is the “Transportation Medley,” because she gets to play the spoons.
Director and Music Director of the show, Maggie Gallagher, also plays the role of Vera, the matriarch of the Sanders family. A role she has played at least 20 times through the years in both the original show and the two sequel shows.
The appeal of the characters and the fact that this is “not your typical musical” is what draws people to this show over and over again, Gallagher said.
“These characters are based on real people,” she explained. “If you grew up in the south going to a small church, you would know people like this.”
The music of the show is also what makes “Smoke on the Mountain” such a popular play.
“It’s the old-fashioned gospel tunes that baby boomers grew up hearing and singing when they were young in church,” said Gallagher. “It’s just part of our southern foundations.”
The 10 member cast all play multiple instruments throughout the course of the show including piano, guitar, banjo, upright bass and ukulele, as well as some creative percussion instruments.
“I think the big appeal for me was that I got to play so many instruments as well as sing and act,” Gallagher said, though she said picking a favorite song from the show was hard to do.
“I love them all,” she said. “For this show though, I do really like ‘Filling Station.’ There are some really great harmonies there.”
Miles Stanley of Lewisville plays Burl, the patriarch of the Sanders clan and said the cast really does feel like family.
“I love singing gospel music with the Sanders family,” Stanley said. “It reminds me of my own childhood, singing around the piano with my own family. As a cast we’ve done this show before and we really are like a second family.”
Stanley also was hard pressed to name a favorite tune, but said “Angel Band” was definitely near the top of the list of favorites.
For several members of the “Smoke on the Mountain” cast, being a family is not just an act. Wayward brother Stanley is played by Steve Bissett of Lewisville, husband of Donna Bissette who plays June. Dennis Sanders, one of the twins, and cousin Darrell are the real life children of the other cousin Darrell and cousin Darrelina, also of Lewisville.
Reverend Oglethorpe is played by Ted Burcaw of Winston-Salem. Morgan Harrison, of Elkin, plays Cousin Darren. Carol McConnell and Carol Wasilauskus, play stuffy church ladies Ms. Maude and Ms. Myrtle. Melissa Peller of Lewisville is the show’s producer.
“We have an amazingly talented cast and crew and I’m thrilled to introduce the Sanders family to the patrons of the Willingham Theater,” Peller said.
According to a press release from the Yadkin Arts Council, play-goers will feel as if they have stepped in to a southern small-town church as they are greeted by “church people” when they arrive. The program has also been designed to look like a church bulletin.
“We want people to feel immersed in the experience of attending a small town Baptist Church service, not to feel like they are audience members watching a play but rather that they ARE the play,” said Ron Thompson, artistic director of the Willingham Theater.
Tickets for “Smoke on the Mountain” are $16 for adults and $12 for children 10 and under. Tickets for the show or season tickets for the entire spring series may be purchased online at yadkinarts.org or by calling 336-679-2941.
Kitsey E. Burns may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @ripplereporterk.