Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Theater review: Sanders Family Christmas at Greater Lewisville Community Theatre
Join in the Christmas jamboree with the quintessential town church crowd.
LEWISVILLE Welcome to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on this Christmas Eve in 1941 for the Sanders Family Christmas celebration. Of course, you all remember the Sanders from Smoke on the Mountain that’s played around these parts for a few years. The family from Cider Creek is back to Mount Pleasant after a whirlwind of concerts and record making. Seems they, like many families in ‘41, are losing their boy to the war effort and they want to get in one last concert before he goes.
Stanley’s back from Hollywood after a stint on the radio circuit and he’s playing with the band again. It’s nice to see the twins growing up – that’s Dennis leaving for the marines tomorrow and, well, I hear Denise has made some decisions about her life now – and there’s June, signing for the group, since she don’t sing. Turns out she and Pastor Oglethorpe of the Baptist church have been seeing each other awhile and, well, it’s just really tense times, you know.
Okay, it was actually the Greater Lewisville Community Theatre made to look like a Baptist Church and we were the members of the church gathered for an inspiring evening of Christmas songs and testimonials; “witnessing” they called it. This was the Deep South in 1941 and the celebrations down here were a mixture of patriotism and Christian down-home fellowship with a healthy dose of family spirit and small town naïveté.
The music was a little bit country, a little bit Baptist and a little bit corny, but it provided a nice bit of nostalgia and a holiday story for the community theater crowd. They loved it all and joined right in with the songs. And why shouldn’t they? It’s not too different from many small town churches across the country today.
Bill Sizemore directed this group of actors, singers and musicians and created the little church they occupied, with a small lectern, a couple of benches and three small standing crosses. A wall mural covered the back in a beautiful mountain scene, painted by Aliza Andrews. Lighting was pretty basic although there were sudden blackouts and a few on-set lighting effects provided by John Damian, Sr. Sound was done on stage by the musicians, the actors themselves, playing various instruments and percussive devices. Music Director Bethann Hamann Vidmar had the singers together and handling the eighteen songs and three medleys very tightly. One great note of appreciation for John Damian was deserved. All actors were mic’d and there were no awkward silences or unexpected feedbacks. They were balanced so that their blended voices were a real pleasure. Everybody seemed equal. This sets a standard for how mics should be used.
Sanders Family Christmas was written by Connie Ray based on the characters in Smoke on the Mountain. It consists mostly of a collection of Christmas songs, though not the hodge-podge of songs we hear often today, some Christian witnessing by each of the characters and a family war story. Throw in a little love story and a surprise character turn and you have a nice little tale that doesn’t push the boundaries too much and entertains the folks who really understand this small-town world view.
Of course the real humor came when those folks start witnessing in a pious way, fully intending to give the Lord his glory, preaching and inspiring the flock to higher ideals, but then they get off-track a little by their own foibles and start revealing things the family would rather stay hidden. Each character finds the path to this little humorous turn in their monologue. Most of these were pretty low-brow and had wonderful euphemisms, such as when Stanley, the man back from Hollywood played by Charles E. Beachley III, says, “I never saw no hearse pulling a trailer.” I think this might have been something about not saving your riches for heaven, but it could have gone a few different directions.
Actors were costumed by Kelly King in fairly accurate representations of 1940s clothing. The fairly drab un-colorful standards of the day were supplemented by the more colorful versions of a show business family, but not much. They were mountain people after all. There were a lot of props in this show and Connie Salsman had a stage full of different musical instruments, all of which were played, and a set of international costume pieces that came out in Act 2.
Most actors sang well, though there weren’t any major TV moments, but for what they were singing and how it played to this audience, it was pretty impressive. Five were first-timers at GLCT and most were relatively new to drama. These folks put on a good show and entertained this audience well.
To mention a few (and they all deserve mention), Brian Hindman as Burl Sanders, the dad of the family, played credible guitar, banjo, and ukulele. His wife Vera, played by a very motherly Pam Lack, played good piano and had one of the nicest voices. Her duet with daughter Denise, played and sung by soprano Lacy Prince, in the French café really showed the purity of their vocals and a nice blend. Charles Beachley’s Stanley provided a guitar backup and an off-stage bassist played on this night, but normally Uncle Dan plays upright bass in the group.
Amy Brown played June Sanders. Apparently an inexperienced actor, she was not a singer and didn’t talk much until the last but she signed the songs and some of the lines in what I could only describe as angelic. It was beautiful to watch, in spite of the fact that there were no deaf people in the church or in this audience.
Brian Garner played Pastor Melvin Oglethorpe. Now I’ve been in many churches in my day and Garner’s Pastor Oglethorpe pretty much nailed the character type. As primary humor-bringer in this story, Garner played his comedy with full trust in the humor, so we were able to laugh at his lines knowing he believed them fully. It’s not often true. Well done.
I got to GLCT early for this show and sat in the lobby watching it fill up, listening to the volunteers prepare the concessions, seeing the regular patrons arrive. I wondered, why do people in a place like Lewisville, close enough to visit DSM or Bass Hall, come to a community theater where acting is often amateur and production quality is usually minimal? The answer came to me as the night unfolded.
A community knows what it likes and community theaters learn how to give it to them. Good theater is what the audience likes. Greater Lewisville Community Theatre knows this and always gives it to them. Like Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and the Sanders Family, GLCT is a family affair. That’s their success.
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