Parton was in town last week to officially launch “Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Adventures,” a dinner show on the parkway that replaces “Lumberjack’s.” The attraction recently reopened under the new name, its overall theme reimagined as a showcase for old-time tales inspired by Parton’s family — with special focus on the story of her parents at about the time they fell in love.
Seating is along tiered rows that form a horseshoe around the performance area. Folks seated on one side are proclaimed honorary “Partons” to root for the family of her father, Lee Parton; folks across the way are declared honorary “Owenses” to root for the family of her mother, Avie Lee Owens Parton.
I must admit I spent almost as much time trying to Parton-watch as I did eating my own food. She was nibbling and seemed too enthralled with the show to give the food much attention. And the show, with recorded voice-over narration from Parton, combined with live, on-stage storytelling by “Apple Jack,” is very entertaining. There are no lulls during which to pay too much attention to your meal.
The basic premise of the plot: each year, back in the 1930s, the Partons and the Owenses faced off during an annual “hootenanny” and sort of “field day” of mountain-skills contests. In addition to song-and-dance production numbers, the story is moved along by acrobatics performed on trampoline, Chinese poles, aerial silks suspended three stories above the stage and in “the amazing Electro-wheel.” There are also some very entertaining animal acts, participation by both adults and children plucked from the audience and comic relief in the way of a wacky inventor.
The success of Parton’s two NBC television movies (”Coat of Many Colors” and “Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love”) prompted the development of the new storyline for the show, Parton said.
“Everybody just fell in love with my parents ... and their love story,” Parton said. “So we thought we’d just have the entire cast of this show and make it kind of like it was my family and go back in time to when Momma and Daddy first started dating and their love story back in the ’30s. And we’d have a rivalry between the Owens family ... and the Parton family ... even though they did get along pretty good. There were always a few fights going on, but that happens in everybody’s family, right?”
Parton said the design of the show allows for potential changes and additions in coming seasons.
The food was delicious the day we visited, and we hope it wasn’t just because Parton, along with members of the Herschend family (her partners in the Dollywood Company), was front and center taking in the show, the service and the vittles.
The menu is billed as “Avie Lee’s Sunday Dinner,” which includes “Grandma’s Creamy Vegetable Soup, Dorothy Jo’s Homemade Biscuits, Avie Lee’s Fried Chicken, Pulled Pork Scalded & Cooked over at Grandpa Jake’s, Cabin Taters, Buttery Corn on the Cob picked by Uncle Billy and Aunt Marth’s Southern Peach Pie.”
Unlike at “Dixie Stampede,” diners at “Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Adventures” do get a fork — but you can eat with your hands if you want. During our visit, the fried chicken breast was plump and moist on the inside and golden and crispy on the outside: in other words, pretty much perfect. The biscuits were light and fluffy. Even though we were stuffed, we couldn’t resist the flaky, sugar-coated crust and warm, sweet filling of the peach turnover that served as finale to the meal.
I would describe the show as three parts musical and one part “Cirque du Smoké.” And I mean that as a compliment.
Speaking of those TV movies, as I’ve said before, Chasing Rainbows (the museum within Dollywood that houses a treasure trove of Dolly memorabilia) is one of my favorite getaways whenever I visit the park. Its interior is especially welcoming when the weather outside is hot, cold or wet. And there’s always something I’ve either never noticed or something brand new among the exhibits.
What caught my eye on my most recent visit to Chasing Rainbows was the addition of costumes and accessories from those two TV movies — and a new wedding tableau featuring the bridal gown worn by Parton and the suit worn by her husband of 51 years, Carl Dean, when the two renewed their vows to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary last year.
Tickets for Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Adventures Dinner and Show are on sale now at (844) 322-4400 and at www.smokymountainadventures.com.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Kingsport Times-News.