‘Fire on the Mountain’ an unexpected treat
DENVER – Coal miners, so the story goes, only see one sunset a week – when they’re off on Sunday. They spend the day getting clean after a week underground, going to church and spending time with a family that all but forgets they exist the previous six days.The life of Appalachian coal miners in the first half of the 20th century is no doubt an unusual topic to base a piece of theater on, especially when there’s not a particular story to tell. But “Fire on the Mountain,” now playing at the Denver Center Theatre Company, is an oddly affecting work that’s neither play nor musical, drama nor comedy – but it contains elements of all these things.
Billed as a “musical tribute,” “Fire on the Mountain” contains a wealth of wonderful folk, blues and bluegrass music performed live by a cast of nine – two of whom are female. Wearing period clothes and mining hats and toting banjos, guitars, fiddles and harmonicas, the male cast members tell the story of life below the surface, serving up an indelible portrait of what is no doubt one of the worst jobs in the world. The two women provide perspective on what it’s like to be married to men who go off to work in the pre-dawn hours six days a week, a tin of morphine in their pocket to hasten their demise in the event they’re entombed in a cave-in.More documentary than a play or a musical, “Fire on the Mountain” touches on all the aspects of the coal miner’s life: the ghastly work, the horrible pay, the evil mining companies and the drive toward unionization. It’s done by using the actual words of miners from that era, spoken in between the songs as images from the period are projected against the walls. It’s a pastiche, but somehow it works.Written by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman (Myler also directed the DCTC production), “Fire on the Mountain” might have been at risk of being a sort of Appalachian music revue. It’s thematic cohesiveness comes, however, from its overwhelming humanity. It’s impossible not to be moved by the lives of the people the cast depicts, and to relate to their suffering while honoring the pride and perseverance that kept them going.
It’s not one single story that drives the show, but, rather, a cumulative narrative that ultimately adds up to much more than the sum of its parts.All of that is aided by a dynamite ensemble cast of exceptional musicians and singers who appear to be having a wonderful time moving through the songs and stories. Dark though some of the subject matter may be, the numbers are lively and catchy, and there are plenty of times when audience members find themselves tapping their toes or clapping along with the music. Coal miners had it a lot tougher than most of us ever will, but it’s all relative, as they say. Where “Fire on the Mountain” succeeds is in letting us find that little bit of coal miner in all of us, and to let us celebrate the triumph over suffering that’s critical to making it through the sunsets and into the next day.
Alex Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado