Chattanooga Now Cumberland County Playhouse launches 20th season of 'Smoke'

Chattanooga Now Cumberland County Playhouse launches 20th season of 'Smoke'

May 23rd, 2013 by Clint Cooper in Chattanooga Now - Art

Former Chattanoogan Jason Ross sings out and plays the accordion as he portrays the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe in Cumberland County Playhouse launches 20th season of "Smoke on the Mountain."

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.


What: "Smoke on the Mountain"

When: May 24-Aug. 2

Where: Cumberland County Playhouse, 221 Tennessee Ave., Crossville, Tenn.

Admission: $12-$24

Phone: 931-484-5000


If Jason Ross and Patty Payne turned up with arthritis from their repeat roles in "Smoke on the Mountain," no one would be surprised.

Since the mid-1990s, Ross has played the same keys on the accordion and Payne has signed her words in American Sign Language more than 900 times in their respective roles as Mervin Oglethorpe and June Sanders at the Cumberland County Playhouse.

"Smoke on the Mountain" will open at the Crossville, Tenn., theater on Friday, May 24, marking its 20th season there.

Samuel French Inc., the world's oldest and largest publisher of plays and musicals, said the show is the most popular one they license, according to a CCP news release. The French archives also indicate the CCP has done more performances of "Smoke" than any other theater anywhere.

"It's a massively popular show," said theater marketing director John Fionte. "It has a much broader reach than one might think. You might think it would have more of a geographic appeal, but it's had crazy success all over the country."

He said he was stunned when he first came to Crossville and had a role in the play nearly 11 years ago.

"We'd almost always do the meet-and-greets," he said, "and I would be amazed when I would talk to people who said they'd seen the show eight, 10, 12, 20 times."

Actors Ross and Payne keep their roles fresh, according to Fionte, because a fellow cast member changes every season or so.

"It's a whole different dynamic [for the people playing the same roles]," he said. "As those relationships [among characters] change, it brings a freshness to your role."

"Smoke on the Mountain" is a grassroots musical that tells the story of the Sanders Family Singers with humor, bluegrass and gospel music.

Daniel Black, who started his run with the show in 1995 as a volunteer while still at Cumberland County High School, now doubles as co-director and Sanders family patriarch Burl. His first role in the production was as Burl's son, Dennis.

Lauren Marshall also has extra duties as Sanders matriarch Vera, co-director of the show and musical director.

"[Black] and Marshall are lucky to have each other," Fionte said. "It's so much more helpful when you have another pair of eyes ... that you trust and respect."

The production on June 29 will mark the official 20th anniversary of "Smoke on the Mountain" at the theater. Though Fionte said details haven't been worked out, cast members from past seasons of the show will make appearances.

"We want as many actors as we can get," he said. "We're expecting quite a few people come back to Crossville for this one very special event."

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