Part revival meeting, part spoof, part giving testimony to God, it's an experience that was a real winner when it played in Branson, Mo., and a favorite at Amish Acres, Ind., where they paired it with potluck suppers. The Taproot evening has all the Bible verses you could ask for and some terrific music. If that's what appeals to you, this is your chance to yell out "Hallelujah" and "Amen."
As you walk into the theater, you find yourself in Mount Pleasant Baptist Church up in the hills of North Carolina. It's a Saturday night in 1938, and there's going to be a sing. Pastor Oglethorpe tidies up a bit, but he seems obviously stressed as the minutes tick by and the performers of the evening aren't there. He tries to reassure the churchgoers (that is, the audience) that all will be well, and sure enough it is. The Sanders Family Singers straggle in, late because their bus has flipped over. It's not a good start to their evening, but they're troupers. They're ready to sing out for that old-time religion, and so begins a wonderful musical feast.
The music is by far the best part of the show. Taproot has assembled a cast of seven talented musicians who raise the roof with their spirited melodies. Cheers for Edd Key, the musical director. Under his able guidance, the cast gives new vitality to the 29 bluegrass gospel songs featured in the program. In rousing, foot-stomping ensemble pieces and tearjerking odes to the dearly departed, the cast never misses a beat. As the evening progresses, they play 20 different instruments, showing amazing versatility as well as ability.
It's a uniformly good cast. Edd Key plays the role of Burl Sanders, the father of the group; Theresa Holmes is Mother Sanders, Loni Kappus is daughter June, Aubrey Bean and Allen Cox are the twins Denise and Dennis. Stanley, the newly redeemed brother of Burl, is played by David Anthony Lewis. Perfect as insecure, pious and naïve Pastor Oglethorpe is Kevin Brady.
Director Scott Nolte has paid attention to all the nuances of personality and character. In the course of the evening, each family member gives witness before the Lord. We learn of their unfulfilled dreams as well as their transgressions. Nolte's players are so incredibly good in providing the little facial tics and body gestures that reveal their pride, sorrow, frustration, irritation or awe that it's hard to believe they aren't testifying from their own personal experience.
And now to the play itself. No question, it's full of religion and glory. It's all about spreading the gospel through song and celebration. But, in fact, the author had more in mind than a straight-on call to the Lord. This theatrical work also contains a significant helping of parody, and, sadly for some of us, this production plays that down or glosses right over it.
How can we take seriously the testimony of a young backwoods woman who reluctantly accepts God's will when He doesn't arrange for her to be chosen to star as Scarlett in David O. Selznick's forthcoming production of "Gone With the Wind"? There's a rollicking musical morality piece called "Christian Cowboys" that entreats us to "bring in the strays for the Lord." There's something funny about characters who incessantly one-up each other by quoting the Bible and naming chapter and verse, and the author clearly intended us to see the humor.
All of these examples speak to excesses of fundamentalism, as do the incidents when some of the priggish parishioners get up and leave because there's something that appears to be dancing going on in the church. The play is poking fun, doing it softly, but doing it nonetheless.
The best of the lampoons occurs in the testimony provided by Mother Sanders. Out of her purse she pulls a June bug with a thread tied to its hind leg. Holding the thread, she lets the bug circle round and round her head on its tether. This she likens to a good Christian for whom Jesus has run a thread to the hind leg of his soul.
There's some irreverence underlying this play, and that, no doubt, explains why it ran Off-Broadway for a year and a half. The mission of this Taproot production is to focus attention on the reaffirmation of the Christian faith. It's a perspective their audiences seem to want. If the Bible is your roadmap, and you would like to sing the story of religion and glory, you're going to like the greeting-card uplift that this production offers. If terrific gospel music isn't enough for you, if you seek a more thoughtful theater experience, you may want to take a pass.
'Smoke on the Mountain'
Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St.
Wednesdays-Saturdays through Aug. 12
Tickets $15 to $30, 781-9707 or 292-ARTS