Theater review: ‘Sanders Family Christmas’ at SART

HEARTFELT: Dennis Sanders, of the Sanders Family Singers, is headed to war, and his family gives him a song- and story-filled sendoff in 'Sanders Family Christmas,’ the sequel to the bluegrass gospel musical 'Smoke on the Mountain.' It runs through Dec. 23, on the campus of Mars Hill University. Photo courtesy of SART

It’s easy to get lost in the consumerism of Christmas, but sometimes simple is better. If you want a healthy dose of sweetness and sometimes-goofy holiday cheer, then Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre has just the thing: The homespun witticisms and throwback sentiments of Sanders Family Christmas run through Sunday, Dec. 23, at Owen Theatre on the campus of Mars Hill University.

Last year, in an attempt to resurrect the floundering theater company, SART produced this popular holiday show, with the characters from the similarly down-home Smoke on the Mountain gospel musical. The singing Sanders family and their 1941 visit to a small country church on Christmas Eve nearly sold out its entire run, and the shot of much-needed funding helped SART produce a full summer season. Now the Sanders family is back for a victory lap.

Treated as the congregation, the audience is heavily referenced by the characters. The Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (played with an endearing silliness by Joshua Whitt) welcomes the Sanders family to his little country church. The snow outside is falling, and there’s more than a little concern about the young men who have enlisted to fight in World War II just weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Dennis Sanders has enlisted and ships out in two days. Dennis’ father Burl (Timothy Wilds) and his brother Stanley both served in the First World War and know what darkness awaits the bright-eyed young man. Lee Wilson is great as Dennis, as is his real-life wife, Natalie, who plays his mischievous twin sister Denise (who dreams of being discovered by Hollywood). Lyn Nihart’s Stanley is a former troublemaker-turned-crooner, who also spins an emotional yarn about his wayward youth.

The Sanders family members sing and share stories throughout, including a rollicking tale about misbehaving elves in Santa’s service as told by Pem Price Tomaselli’s Mother Sanders. She also has a particularly funny encounter with a tipsy old Christmas tree. But the real scene stealer isn’t a singing Sanders: June Sanders (Jennifer O’Rear) provides interpretive sign language translations of all the songs (even though there are no hearing-impaired people in the congregation.) Her gesticulations and physical comedy create gales of laughter during almost every song.

The music (under the expert direction of Brad Curtioff) is a tapestry of classics like “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Away In A Manger” and many other Christmas staples. There is also a comical tribute to the holiday from various cultures that might border on cultural appropriation and mockery were they not so innocently well-intentioned and legitimately funny.

The show has as much heart as it has comedy, and there’s a sincerity that can’t be denied. For those not in the Christmas spirit, this show offers a cure for the holiday blues.

WHAT: Sanders Family Christmas
WHERE: Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, Mars Hill University, 44 College St., Mars Hill
WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 23. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $25


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About Jeff Messer
playwright, actor, director and producer, Jeff Messer has been most recently known as a popular radio talk show host. He has been a part of the WNC theatre scene for over 25 years, and actively works with and supports most of the theatres throughout the region. Follow me @jeffdouglasmess

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