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‘Fire on the Mountain’ 

May 30, Arkansas Repertory Theatre

click to enlarge FIRE FROM THE MUSIC: Conner Frederick and James Leva perform in the Rep's current show.
  • FIRE FROM THE MUSIC: Conner Frederick and James Leva perform in the Rep's current show.

“Fire on the Mountain,” the “bluegrass musical” closing out the Rep's current season, is one of the more bizarre things I have seen on stage. The show's narrative and acting are basically cornpone. But the production is really about the music, and it delivers with songs that are powerful and often beautifully performed.

The musical's plot loosely revolves around a brood of Appalachian coal miners who struggle first to form a union and then to sustain their livelihoods as new strip-mining techniques render their labor superfluous. Most of the dialogue, the little there was of it, was delivered in a contrived aw-shucks fashion. There was no character development to speak of, so it was rather a shock when toward the end there developed a drawn-out sentimental scene revolving around one miner's move to the city.

But when it came to the music the cast members clearly knew what they were doing. Their style was a potent brew of bluegrass, blues, country, labor songs and a particular strain of Appalachian a cappella singing. Molly Andrews, the standout of the cast, vigorously performed the latter throughout the show. Another noteworthy performer was “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, who contributed blues to the set. The fine accompaniment included fiddle, banjo and mandolin.

The ensemble got off to a bit of a rickety start — it was opening night, and they took a song or two to drop into unison — but once they got rolling they didn't let up. The production rips through 36 songs in about an hour and a half. The audience occasionally broke into handclaps and obviously enjoyed the romp.

Despite the quality of the music, it was sometimes a bit hard to ignore how silly the performers looked in miners' headlamps and sackcloth dresses. The stage scenery was calculated to exude the homiest atmosphere possible, studded as it was with wooden chairs and union signs. Hoisted above the stage were two large screens, framed in wood, which added a sense of gravitas to the proceedings by projecting historical pictures of miners. But the images were belied by the characters themselves, who were more an extension of the corny scenery than believable human beings — their primary function was to make limp comments and express delight at the music.

Strip away all these peripherals and the production loses nothing. The music certainly pleased, but the whole production left me wanting to revisit “Harlan County USA,” the 1976 documentary about a coal miners' strike in Kentucky from which “Fire on the Mountain” appears to have taken inspiration. It too had beautiful folk songs. But it also had the benefit of depicting real miners in a real labor struggle — something not easily approximated on stage.

The production continues through June 22. Tickets are $25 to $40. They can be purchased online at www.therep.org or by phone at 378-0405 or 866-6-THEREP.

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