Sanders Family Christmas

The Renaissance Theatre produced what is becoming their perennial holiday show, Sanders Family Christmas, at Burritt on the Mountain, for one weekend in mid-December.  It was an enjoyable evening of theatre, with some hopping music, and respectable story-telling.

The premise is a family of bluegrass musicians who have been invited to a small church in Appalachia to perform and witness, on Christmas Eve, 1941.  America has just joined World War 2, and one of the Sanders is about to ship out, so it’s a bittersweet evening of bluegrass Christmas songs, heartfelt witnessing, and just plain fun comedy.  The challenge with this show will always be the casting, because it calls for seven actors who can both play believable, honest characters, and can pull off the comedic timing throughout, AND five of them need to able to play bluegrass instruments well.

Generally what happens in community theatre, is that a production casts a mix of musicians who manage to get by on the acting part, and actors who can fake the music.  This Renaissance Theatre production was no exception to that rule.  Three of the five characters who are supposed to play, do, and do it well.  RT made up the difference by adding a couple more characters with no lines, but who sit in the corner and play all the songs, and that made all the difference, making the music the strong point of this year’s production of Sanders. Jonathan Kobler, as the patriarch of the clan, “Burl Sanders”, held forth on both guitar and bass; Margaret Bibb, as the matriarch, “Vera Sanders”, provided solid guitar play and probably had the most genuine “bluegrass” singing voice; and Michael Anders, as Burl’s brother, “Stanley Sanders”, was quite good on guitar as well.  Luckily for the “bluegrass” feel of the music, they were joined by the extra musicians, Dan Brown on banjo, and Dan Charles on fiddle.  It’s arguable about whether the songs in this show are “bluegrass”, or just Christmas songs played on the typical bluegrass instruments, but it doesn’t matter–they rocked the songs.

Jay Hixon, as director, is a bit limited in blocking and staging, by the performance space.  While the Old Country Church at Burritt on the Mountain, is a great location for the show, it is small, and sightlines are generally horrible,unless you are sitting in the front couple rows.  That said, Hixon moved the show along nicely, and blocked it about as well as could be done in the space.  The moments between the songs were the weaker portion of the show, unfortunately.  The characters did not generally plumb the depths of emotion that is there in the script for their deeper moments, but we got the idea, and most of the time, it’s about the jokes anyway.  The big marriage proposal by “Reverend Oglethorpe” to one of the family’s daughters, “June”, at the end of the show came out of the blue, because those two characters hadn’t shown any real connection before that, and June’s response to the proposal was clearly “rehearsed”, rather than feeling like an off-the-cuff, heart-felt speech.  The acting generally just lacked “freshness” overall, and missed the emotional heart that is needed for this script to knock us back in our seats.  That said, it was a fun evening of theatre, and the jokes were still funny.

If you missed this run of the show, it will probably be back next year.  If you haven’t seen Sanders Family Christmas yet, I do recommend you make the trip then.

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