Sunday, July 01, 2001

'Smoke' daughter spoons out the laughs

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “Just say I'm a spoon savant,” Jonah Marsh says, laughing.

        Ms. Marsh is known to and loved by local audiences as June Sanders, the well-intentioned daughter of a singing clan.

        June may not be able to carry a tune, but her sublimely demented sign interpretation of songs and her stunning use of arms and legs to ring out “Jingle Bells” is only topped by her mastery of playing the spoons.

        The long run of A Sanders Family Christmas: More Smoke on the Mountain was the theatrical equivalent of a Santa-filled sack of holiday gifts. It enjoyed a record-breaking holiday run at Playhouse in the Park last season, and Ms. Marsh was the angel on top of a slightly out-of-kilter Christmas tree.

        Long before the Sanctified Sanders Family Singers celebrated Christmas, there was the original Smoke on the Mountain. It was a hit when Playhouse first produced it in 1993.

Self-taught musician

        Set in 1938 in the heart of the Great Depression, Smoke is a not-so-traditional Saturday Night Sing at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church with plenty of bluegrass, testimony and gospel. The audience gets to play the congregation.

        Smoke is being revived for a summer run (July 5-Aug. 5). The cast is a combination of the ensembles from Sanders Family Christmas and from an off-Broadway revival in 1997. Ms. Marsh is a veteran of both.

        Her virtuoso spoon-playing was not part of her Texas childhood. She learned them for the show. “Thank God I didn't know how to play the spoons,” she laughs. “It would have said so much about my life.”

        She giggles that all her musical accomplishments for Smoke are self-taught. “The other characters have instruments and songs, and the director is always working with them. I get sent over to a corner with cow bells and a sign language book with an order to "be funny!' ”

        Actually, a lot of June's schtick was put in place by Connie Ray, who co-wrote the show with Alan Bailey and originated the role. Mr. Bailey, who directed both previous Playhouse productions, returns for this revival.

        A New York-based actress and writer, Ms. Marsh has been working on her inner stand-up comic.

        She started to notice that “hey, people think I'm funny!

        “I'm a newbie at this, but my family and friends have been encouraging me” although she still finds it “terrifying to be without a script.” She tried out her first five minutes of stand-up in May and she plans to have 10 minutes of material by the time Smoke opens later this week.

        “I'm hoping to get one of the Cincinnati clubs to give me some time. I want a chance to work outside of New York, where it isn't so fierce.”


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