By Josette Keelor
Cast members of Wayside Theatre's upcoming musical, "Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming," call it appropriate as what could be the theater's final show, before having to decide whether or not to continue business as usual.
The show, which Artistic Director Warner Crocker said he chose in December 2011 to be part of the theater's 51st season, portrays a family of characters preparing to say goodbye to their musical tradition. Over the years its actors, too, have worked together very much like a family.
Wayside has performed the other two shows in the "Smoke" series, having performed "Homecoming" previously in 2008.
It's the final show in the series written by Connie Ray, Crocker said, adding with a laugh, "Until they write the next one."
In the trilogy's time line, the Sanders Family, which performs as a musical group in the 1930s and '40s in the first two stories, is about to break up as June, played by Thomasin Savaiano, and her husband Pastor Oglethorpe, performed by Don Denton, prepare to move to Texas where the pastor will preach and the couple will welcome their first child.
Savaiano, who portrayed a pregnant woman in the theater's previous play, "Glory Bea: A Shenandoah Christmas Story," is used to it by now.
"Here I will have been pregnant five straight months," she said.
When the Wayside cast last performed "Homecoming," it used the stage at the Royal Phoenix in Front Royal, since Wayside was undergoing renovations, Crocker said.
"So this is a homecoming for the homecoming, here at Wayside Theatre," he said. "It's meaningful for a lot of reasons."
For one, it reunites five of its seven actors, who also have performed in various other shows together at Wayside.
Pam Pendleton, as Vera, and Bob Payne, as Burl, have portrayed Jennie Malone's parents before, she said at a recent rehearsal. In "Homecoming," Payne will portray the uncle of her character, Denise.
"I love coming back, doing rehearsals," said Malone, who will reprise her role from Wayside's performance of "Smoke" last year. "It's like coming back to work with your family."
Denton, new to Wayside, said the word "homecoming" suits Wayside's situation in both of its definitions, as "a coming together that immediately precedes a departure" and "a revival, a reinvigorating of the theater."
But as Savaiano put it, if people come to see the show, there's a great chance it won't be Wayside's last.
The bluegrass and gospel music of "Homecoming" might not be everyone's preference, the cast admitted, but the energy of the characters' personalities and voices will make anyone "an instant convert," said Denton.
"It's just as entertaining," Savaiano said, "and you still can connect with these people, even if you don't have that background. Northerners will like it too."
As has become expected at Wayside, the cast will double as the orchestra, something Crocker called a rare gift.
Besides adding to the audience's visceral experience, it adds to the authenticity of the performance, said music director, Steve Przybylski, who plays various instruments in his role as Dennis.
"Musical families of this generation did that all the time," he said.
Denton plays guitar, but he said, "We'll see what other instruments get put in."
Richard Daniel, as Stanley, will play bass guitar and mandolin.
Malone, Pendleton and Payne, too, among them plan to cover fiddle, ukulele, mandolin, accordion, auto harp, five-string banjo, upright bass and piano.
As for Savaiano, "I play anything that beats, shimmies, has a wooden sound." The "miscellaneous stuff" she uses as instruments has become the stuff of legend at Wayside's performances of the "Smoke" series, where the cast has noticed audience members delighting in what she'll come up with next.
Throwing various instruments into the mix is part of the fun, said Przybylski, who adjusts the show's music each time the cast changes for any of Wayside's musicals. "[The] challenge is deciding what to leave out," he said.
Payne agreed, "[The] score itself will be going, 'What?'"
But "Homecoming" too will be a way for the audience to reunite at the theater for what has become one of Wayside's best-loved musicals and most popular series.
"These are very simple but powerful stories," said Crocker, who added that he has never before or since experienced an audience connect with a show like they did with this series when the cast performed "Sanders Family Christmas" at the Old Town Events Center in Winchester in 2006. "I watched people get up from their seats and push forward from those aisles and try to touch these people," he said.
"You're absolutely agog at how people connect to this," he said.
It's the characters that draw them in, said Przybylski. "We all know these people. These are our families. These are things that everybody goes through."
Savaiano agreed, "It's about everything in between, between the family." Wondering what will happen to the family after each show ends and the next begins is what brings the crowds back time and again, she said. "It's the in betweens, ... it's the love."
"I hope," Przybylski said, "our audience understands just how rare a theater this is. For where we are, this is an incredible resource."
"This gives us a chance to show Wayside Theatre doing what we do best," he said. "What better way to say, 'This is who we are'? 'Can you support us, are we valuable?'"
Wayside Theatre, at 7853 Main St. in Middletown, will perform "Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming" from Jan. 26 through March 16. Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, except for opening night, at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 27. Tickets range from $25 to $30 for adults and $10 for children 17 and younger. There are also discounts for seniors, students and groups. For more information, call 869-1776 or visit www.waysidetheatre.org.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com