REVIEW: 'Sanders Family Christmas' at Backstage at the Barn

Well, I feel like I've been to church and somehow, miraculously, the roof didn't fall in on me! Thanks to the Backstage at the Barn production of Sanders Family Christmas, a trip back in time to Christmas Eve 1941, you can get the gospel this season in a sweetly satisfying production that's perfect for these troubled times - even if you're not a true believer.

Directed by the multi-talented Tim Fudge, who does double duty as music director of the piece, Sanders Family Christmas is an affectionately drawn tribute to simpler times that is sure to evoke memories of home and hearth - and if you're country-born, as am I, you'll find yourself missing family members who are no longer with you. That alone makes the show an ideal pick for this sentimental season of the year, but it's Fudge's direction and the commendable efforts of his very talented cast that make it one of the year's strongest productions.

The Sanders family of gospel singers return from the original Smoke on the Mountain for a Christmas Eve service at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and only two days before favorite son Dennis Sanders leaves for basic training. As in Smoke, this Christmas features some of the best-loved tunes from years of Southern Baptist church-going and anyone who grew up in just such a church will see people they know, love and remember. Written by Connie Ray, conceived by Alan Bailey and featuring the musical arrangements of John Foley and Gary Fagin, the Sanders Family trilogy (which includes Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming) chronicles the lives of good country people living their lives amid trying times.

Daron Bruce plays Burl Sanders, the leader of the singers and the father of the clan, with just the right blend of good humor and reverence. He may look too young to be father to twins Dennis ("he's the boy") and Denise ("she's the girl") or to non-singing, but signing, June, but he delivers a performance that is completely believable as the head of the family. Amanda Lamb plays Vera, the god-fearing mother of the brood, with a generous amount of Baptist church lady bravado with the voice of an angel - but there ain't no way she looks old enough to be anyone's mama!

Laura Marsh is sweetly naïve and unassuming as daughter June, giving a spirited performance, while B.J. Rowell's Dennis ("he's the boy") and Jaclyn Brown's Denise ("she's the girl") seem well-matched as siblings. The scene in which Rowell talks about his character's impending departure for the Marines is moving and heartfelt, while Brown's testimony about the travails of Denise's growing up is both touching and funny.

But perhaps the evening's most satisfying performances come from the two remaining members of the show's ensemble: Derek Whittaker as the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe, the pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, and Will Sevier as Sanders' family uncle Stanley. Whittaker delivers a particularly compelling portrayal as the preacher, still mourning his mama's death and somehow capturing the zeal and devotion of every Evangelical you've ever met. Sevier's exquisitely understated and altogether honest performance as Stanley (back from a brief sojourn in Hollywood for a turn in a cowboy movie) is even more impressive because of its staying power.

Stage simply and evocatively in the intimate confines of the Backstage at the Barn venue at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Sanders Family Christmas is well-paced, featuring an appropriate set design by Johnny Peppers and Lonny Prevost, and David Compton's lighting design. Martha Wilkinson's set dressing completes the picture of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, circa 1941, while Jenny Noel's costumes help the actors find the right note as their characters.

- Sanders Family Christmas. Written by Connie Ray. Conceived by Alan Bailey. Musical arrangements by John Foley and Gary Fagin. Directed by Tim Fudge. Produced by Janie and John Chaffin. Backstage at the Barn, Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, Nashville. Through December 31. For details, visit the company website at www.dinnertheatre.com

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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