Opening night nears | FTC to present ‘Smoke on the Mountain’

Published 8:02 am Sunday, July 22, 2012

Opening night is fast approaching for the Franklinton Community Theatre’s dinner theater production of the musical comedy “Smoke on the Mountain.”

The show will be presented Friday, July 27 and Saturday, July 28 and Friday, Aug. 3 and Saturday, Aug. 4 at the 10-10 Club in Franklinton, where the stage has been transformed, under the guidance of construction engineer Daniel Bosch, to look like the inside of a church.

Set in the late 1930s, the plot of “Smoke on the Mountain” centers around a small Baptist church in North Carolina and its pastor, Mervin Oglethorpe, who gets the Sanders family — all bluegrass gospel musicians — back together to sing, play music and tell the congregation about their lives, Franklinton Community Theatre President Rod Sabiston said.

“It’s based around music and comedy and testimonies,” he said.

The play also features an “Amen Corner” consisting of two ladies who are major financial contributors to the church and sit nearby to make sure the music doesn’t get too rowdy and a Bluegrass Billies band that includes musicians playing the mandolin, banjo, guitar, harmonica, keyboard and stand-up bass, Sabiston said.

An on-stage veteran of productions by the Franklinton Community Theatre and other groups, Heath McNeese is directing “Smoke on the Mountain.”

“He’s a great piano player,” Sabiston said. “He’s a great singer and he’s a great actor.”

Much of McNeese’s cast is new to the theater, and he’s new to directing in the FCT.

“This is actually the first show I’ve directed with the theater, and what’s really exciting is we have some people that have never been on stage before and it’s been incredible watching them actually take these characters and make them their own,” he said.

The cast has grown a great deal over the course of the rehearsals, McNeese said.

“It’s amazing to think about the journey that we’ve taken from getting scripts in our hands to actually having everything together right now,” he said.

Working with McNeese as assistant director is his mother, Debbie McNeese.

“To be able to do this with him is just an honor,” she said.

The rehearsals can be scary for the actors and actresses at the beginning, but the cast members are “doing just wonderful” with their roles, Debbie McNeese said.

“(At first) nobody knows anybody and then they start reading lines, and they get to know each other a little bit,” she said. “And then all of a sudden, the director can kind of sit back and they can take over, because then they become their character and they say ‘Can I do this,’ ‘Can I do this?’ You just kind of let them create their own character.”

All funny in their roles, the cast members have “incredible voices” and “incredible ideas,” Heath McNeese said.

“I couldn’t have chosen a better group of people,” he said. “Their energy is amazing. They are having so much fun playing off of each other.”

This is Debbie McNeese’s first experience directing a production on a scale as large as “Smoke on the Mountain,” she said. And she had a different role in the last community theater production: playing Sister Amnesia in “Nunsense.”

“It is a totally different experience being on this side, because when you’re on stage you’re responsible for your own lines and making people laugh,” she said. “On this side, you’re responsible for everybody’s lines and where they’re supposed to be. It’s harder. I never realized a director’s job was a lot harder, but it’s fun. It’s very rewarding.”

Heath McNeese has prior experience with the musical, as he played piano during a dinner theater production of “Smoke on the Mountain” at William Carrey University in Hattiesburg, Miss.

“I fell in love with the show,” he said. “It’s really funny, and I think it kind of speaks to what should be at the heart of religion, and that’s really caring for people.”

He said he is eagerly awaiting opening night.

“I’m so excited,” he said. “It’s always funny because this close to it you always get kind of nervous, but it’s going to be great and I’m so excited for everybody to get to see it and to see what talent our community has in it.”

Phill Junkins, who portrays the quirky Pastor Oglethorpe, is certainly not new to the Franklinton Community Theatre. This is his fourth production with the group, after “The Wizard of Oz,” “Noah’s Animals” and “God’s Favorite.” He said he was hooked after the first one.

“It’s kind of like an addiction; it is so much fun to do,” he said. “It’s a great outlet, and I really enjoy being on the stage. I love the comedic part of it. If people come and laugh and have a good time, then you walk away feeling like you’ve done something, and it’s a great way to get involved in the community.”

The venue adds to the production, as one would have to New Orleans or Slidell to find something similar to it, Junkins said.

“It is going to be a barrel full of fun, and we want folks to come enjoy themselves,” he said. “It’s great to have a venue like this. We don’t have a whole lot of things in the parish like this.’

Another cast member with stage is experience is Theron Graves, who plays Burl Sanders, the family patriarch, Sabiston said.

Danny Harris was part of a “Smoke of the Mountain” production that took place about 20 years ago at Hillcrest Baptist Church. He is reprising the role of Uncle Stanley, an ex-convict recently released from prison who reunites with the Sanders family when their gospel group is resurrected.

“It’s fun to be in,” he said. “I’m enjoying it.”

Justin Sanders, who had “never done any kind of performance in front of anybody at all” prior to being recruited for the play by Debbie McNeese, said he is also having fun preparing for his first-ever appearance on the stage.

Rounding out the cast are newcomers Sheila Dedon as Vera Sanders; Jessica Walker, who serves on the Franklinton Community Theatre board, as June Sanders; and Whitney Crowe as Denise Sanders, Sabiston said.

“It’s a good group,” he said. “They all sing well, and they all act well and they’re having fun.”

Tickets will not be sold at the door, Sabiston said. Advance tickets, at a cost of $30 each, are required so there will be an accurate count for food, he said. Reserved seating is available for parties of four to eight, he said.

Tickets are available in Bogalusa at Golden Pear Restaurant and in Franklinton at Leader Printing, Family Furniture, Farm Bureau and Magee Feed/ Farmer in the Dell. For more information, call Sabiston at 848-5845.�