Sanders Family Christmas

This weekend, Renaissance Theatre is bringing back their Christmas favorite, the Sanders Family Christmas, in the Old Country Church at Burritt on the Mountain.  For a fun evening of Christmas songs, campy humor, good Christian witnessing, and general warm feelings, head on up the mountain and check it out for yourself.

If you’ve ever seen Smoke on the Mountain, then you know all the characters, and the setting.  Sanders Family Christmas is the same musical family visiting the same Appalachian church to sing and witness, but it’s four years later, a few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.   The Sanders family is here to celebrate Christmas Eve service, before sending their own son off to war, so it’s an evening of joyful music, and serious messages.

The use of the small Old Country Church is perfect for setting the scene, but limits the staging that the director, Jay Hixon, can do.  Show up early to get a seat up front, or you’ll miss out on any action that isn’t up on the small raised platforms.  The lighting is simple, as it should be, and the sound is all human-made, also as it should be for such a small space.

The performers do a nice job with the songs, but don’t expect to hear “bluegrass”.  The Sanders family is nominally a bluegrass band, but substituting a piano for banjo and fiddle, prevents this version of the family from being that.  Jonathan Kobler, as Burl, the clan patriarch, is the most talented musician in the group, constantly switching between three different instruments.  Barry Norwood, as brother Stanley, carries the tunes forward with his backup accompaniment on the piano, substituting for the largely missing string instruments.  Margaret Bibb, as the mother, Vera, is the only other real musician in the group, playing strongly on the guitar for most of the numbers.  The singing was at its best when few instruments were playing, or on the solos, when the singers felt free to let loose.  The rest of the time, the effort to blend and create harmonies meant that many lyrics were unrecognizable over the music.  Still, though it isn’t the bluegrass music that it’s supposed to be, the songs are comfortably sung, and many will set your toes to tapping.

The unrecognizable lyrics are a double shame, because one of the high points of the show is the hysterical sign-language performance being put on by Joanna White, as the non-musical daughter, June (“I don’t sing, I sign.”).  Her shtick works when the audience either can understand the lyrics she is supposedly representing, or knows the words to the songs (like the show-stopping Christmas-carol medley at the end).  It was sad to see Joanna signing her heart out during unfamiliar numbers, and getting zero reaction from the audience.

The rest of the acting does a nice job of punching up the down-home humor of the show.  It’s generally fails to let the serious aspects fully punch through, but we get the idea, and it’s all in good fun anyway.  Brian Beck, as the Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe, carries the show into the campy regions, but does manage to squeeze every possible chuckle and laugh out of his performance.  Barry Norwood probably provides the best “witness” of the night, with his very believable, very real, message about the love of family.

Sanders Family Christmas is running through Sunday, with evening performances tonight through Saturday, at 7 PM, and matinees on the weekend at 2:30 PM.  For reservations, go to the Burritt on the Mountain website, or for more information, go to the Renaissance Theatre webpage.

Any comments, suggestions, or feedback, feel free to reach the reviewer at

Edited 19 & 20 Dec.  Corrected embarrassing mistakes in character and actor names.  Lesson learned–proofread it, and then proofread it again.