For the next few months, Circa is not a theater and we are not an audience, but a church congregation enjoying Smoke on the Mountain.
The show is set in the 30’s really has no plot. It’s a service at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church featuring the singing Sanders family. Pastor Oglethorpe presides over the evening, in a bumbling sort of way, as the Sanders share testimony and gospel and bluegrass songs. The show plays like an actual service, rather than a show, with the audience meant to be the congregation.
There are no weak performances in this show, though a few do stand out.
Vaughn M. Irving returns to Circa fresh off of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story as Ritchie Valens. Irving is now Pastor Oglethorpe, a country baptist preacher who knows his Scripture, but doesn’t wield much authority. Irving is a delight.
Bob Payne, however, delivers the most real performance of the cast. He’s not over-playing in order to reach the back of the audience. He understands the magic of this show is that it’s meant to feel like a real service. He’s natural, believable. He even nails that slight sense of superiority without a smugness that I’ve often seen in church musicians. I didn’t doubt his Burl Sanders for a minute.
Kimberly Furness is the one who gets the most laughs as June Sanders. She is the most over the top of the performers, but that’s what’s called for in this role. June doesn’t sing, she signs, as in for the deaf. But, she’s apparently self-taught, as her signs are rather literal, which brings down the house. When things get serious, and a tad dull, during the show, she’s in the background or on the side of the stage stirring up deep, loud laughs from the audience.
If Vaughn Irving is the most real, Brad Hauskins is the most sincere in his performance. He plays Stanley, Burl’s way-faring brother, the black sheep of the righteous family. Hauskins doesn’t overplay his role, keeping more to the shadows, as would his character. His performance is just right, which is just perfect. And, he delivers the most sincere and most truthful testimony of the bunch.
Andrew Crowe is absolutely endearing. As the nervous and awkward Dennis Sanders, he’s, well, nervous and awkward. Second only to Furness, Crowe offers several good laughs.
Jenny Stodd plays Dennis’ twin sister, Denise, who is a bit rebellious and flirty. There’s something about Stodd’s voice, with a slight squeak to it, that always brings a smile to my face. I enjoyed her as Little Sally in Urinetown at St. Ambrose and I enjoyed her here. I just hope to enjoy her in a performance that doesn’t involve braided pigtails sometime in the near future.
Rounding out the family is Vrenda V. Lee as the matron of the family, Vera. Lee captures that sense of piety in church people (I’ve known) who seem to simply be ignoring the darker sides of life.
I have to stand up and applaud the fact the performers play their own instruments. My biggest complaint about Circa 21 is the use of pre-recorded accompaniment. I understand the cost, but so much more enjoy a performance with live musicians. To have a cast that is also the band is an extra joy. I get the sense some of the actors learned how to play a little on some instruments just for this performances and pulled it off quite well. I’m truly impressed.
And, once again, I am amazed by Circa’s set. They nailed the feel of a country baptist church, with an old feel to it.
I laughed harder than I’ve laughed during a theater performance in quite some time, particularly during the second half of the first act. Having experienced similar church events, I found the show hilarious, with the inside jokes so enjoyable. While I found the preaching parts dull and not very poignant and the songs a bit too similar sounding, it didn’t matter because I had so much fun.
I will say, though, that I don’t think this is a show for everyone. It’s great for church groups, of which there were four filling half the audience the night I attended the performance. If you’ve experience good, old-fashioned church, this show will likely delight you. My companion for the evening has very limited church experience and did not like the show at all. That said, I think it’s perfect for an organized church outing.
The show runs through May 24th with performances Wednesday through Sunday, more or less. Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse is located in Rock Island, Illinois. You can get tickets by calling the theater at (309) 786-7733 or through Circa’s website.