Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Featuring: Molly Andrews, Harvy Blanks, Nik Duggan, Karen Celia Heil, David M. Lutken, Tony Marcus, Robert Parsons, Marie Shell and Harry Yaglijian
Directed by: Randal Myler
Musical direction by: Dan Wheetman
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
When: April 1-26, 2015
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, California
Tickets: $19-$74; visit www.theatreworks.org/shows/1415-season/fireonthemountain or call 1-650-463-1960
Read Tony Lacy-Thompson's review of this play in Regarding Arts.
Read John Orr's interview with co-scriptwriter and director Randal Mylar in The Daily News.
Read Karen D'Souza's review in The Mercury News.
Read Robert Hurwitt's review at SFGate.com.
Forget just about anything you think you know about Appalachia and the coal miners who lived and died in the mines there. Though their lives were hard, their families brave and strong, and their fortunes meager, they were heroic in many ways, and they somehow found poetry and beauty in the smallest things around them.
For all of its grittiness and straight talk, "Fire on the Mountain," produced by TheatreWorks and playing at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, is lyrical at times, compassionate always and a whole lot of foot-stompin’ fun to boot.
Consider these poignant word pictures, all gems either set to music or spoken by the remarkable, nine-member cast:
• (After working in the coal mines) "Our faces all look the same at the end of the day."
• When 104 miners were trapped in a Kentucky coal mine: "They were carried away on the wings of morphine" (in a song about the little box of the drug each miner carried, just in case).
• "A coal miner only gets but one sunset a week" (because coal miners work six days a week and only get Sundays off).
• "I’ve been in this storm so long."
The hard-working, likeable cast seems more like real Appalachians than actors, though probably only the stellar Molly Andrews can lay claim to that description. But many also have street cred as authentic old-styl" music performers. The tall, lanky David M. Lutken is a standout, whether he’s singing, acting or playing his guitar. He’s like a magnet whenever he’s stage center. Ditto Andrews, who sings with that catch-in-her-throat twang that makes audiences know she’s seen and done all the hard-scrabble things she describes.
That’s not to say that others don’t hold their own onstage. Tony Marcus is a marvel whether he’s fiddlin' away at 120 mph, singing mournful backup to Andrews or Lutken, or when he has his own solo like "Miner’s Lament." Harry Yaglijian is another spectacle with his curly hair, impish smile and 200-strokes-a-minute mandolin
playing (well, it seems that fast, anyway).
Then there’s the calming, life-weary Marie Shell as the woman who lost her husband in one of the coal mine disasters. Her husky voice centers the cast and when she speaks, the audience understands all the pain and heartache she has endured.
Others in the cast (life-long miner Robert Parsons, the fiddling and guitar-plucking Karen Celia Heil and worn down, earnest Harvy Blanks) all contribute individually and collectively in this remarkable production.
Yet for all the sorrow and disillusionment on stage, the cast manages to make the audience react positively, sometimes with foot-tappin’ songs like the title song "Fire on the Mountain," and the rousing closing song, "They’ll Never Keep Us Down."
The structure of this musical is unusual because it has 36 songs and just a few long, spoken passages when Parsons, Shell or others tell the audience their often solemn life stories. Then Andrews responds, in song, with knowing, resignation and, occasionally, hope.
This is the regional premiere of "Fire on the Mountain," which originally opened at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2007. Written by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman (who collaborated on the Tony-nominated revue "It Ain’t Nothin' But the Blues" that ran on Broadway and at TheatreWorks in 1999), the text of "Fire" is actually entirely made up of interviews that the authors had with coal miners and their families in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Which, no doubt, is the reason why "Fire" is raw at times, frequently dumbfounding, and almost always realistic.
Joe Ragey’s near-perfect set fits the wide Mountain View Center stage to a "T," replete with old wooden crates with company names like HARCO Stoker Coal, Famous Black Nancy Coal, Green Arrow Kentucky Coal and, with a nod to the coal miner’s union, United Mine Workers. A few chairs are scattered at the front of the stage, but for the most part, actors walk in, sit or lean on a step or a box, talk, walk about, and then wander off.
What coal miners and their families wore in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia is just how Jill Bowers costumed her cast: Lots of overalls and jeans, big, sturdy work boots for the men, and a few plain cotton dresses for the women. There are nice touches like authentic-looking headlight hats, plaid shirts and lots of dirt and dust on the men’s weary faces.
Lighting (Steven B. Mannshardt) and sound (Brendan Aanes) are so solid throughout, it's as if that nimble-fingered fiddler or banjo player is seated right next to audience members.
This is a rare opportunity to experience and learn a lot about the sometimes bleak yet passionate life of the people of Appalachia. Go. It may never pass this way again in such a vibrant, spirited and soulful package.
Email Joanne Engelhardt at email@example.com