Sanders Family Rides Again: One Thirty Productions

One Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center wanted its loyal regional audience to celebrate a joyful holiday in 2010, so it brought back its 2009 end of year sensation, A Sanders Family Christmas.

Cayman Mitchell, Willy Welch, Pam Pendleton, Sonny Franks, Stan Graner, Marianne Galloway, Katherine Gentsch

This homespun gem of a show shines like that one favorite ornament that graces the family Christmas tree every year. December, 1941. Just after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. What must that time have felt like, in small-town USA, long before the strident voices on television and the Internet barraged everyone with mind and heart-numbing twenty-four hour news, advertising and propaganda cycles? Billed as a bluegrass gospel musical, A Sanders Family Christmas is the second part of a trilogy focused on the lives and music of the fictional American roots Sanders Family, which includes mother, father, uncle, a pair of teen-aged twins and their older, hearing-impaired sister. The local absent-minded Baptist preacher provides love interest and lots of comic relief as the play unfolds as a Christmas season sermon on WWII’s eve, enlivened with over thirty well-loved hymns, traditional songs and tunes composed for the show. Every cast member plays at least two instruments, as well as sings and acts; so versatility and ensemble fit are major casting requirements.

Regional professional director Cheryl Denson helms One Thirty’s endeavor and has re-assembled her exemplary cast from 2009 for the 2010 version. The Bath House Cultural Center’s tiny thrust stage almost bursts its seams with piano, multiple guitars and banjos, an upright bass, an accordion and a variety of percussion instruments (plus chairs, a podium, a stove and Christmas tree) filling the set. Denson’s cast maneuvers the snug space with deft ease; their elbow-bumping proximity adds to the gaiety and small town America intimacy so integral to the show’s feel and success. The cast of this “Sanders Family” exudes a familiarity and tuneful musicality that reflects their total comfort as an ensemble. They rip right along, smoothly performing each well-rehearsed musical number after number, in energetic counterpoint to the enhanced emotionality of scenes. The show comes off refreshing and real, nostalgic, yet no nonsense.

Sonny Franks as easy-going, soft-spoken father Burl (also musical director) and Pam Pendleton as disciplinarian mother Vera make a sugar n’spice couple, well matched as personality opposites. Handsome Willy Welch strums and sings with Hollywood cowboy crooner flair and cuts a believable picture as the family black sheep welcomed ‘back into the fold.’ As teen-aged twins Denise and Dennis, Katherine Gentsch and Cayman Mitchell bring sincere youthful optimism and innocence to their roles, as well as unaffected singing voices. The quietly ‘sparking’ couple, sister June and Reverend Oglethorpe, steal the show with their sweet, quirky romance thanks to the talents of Marianne Galloway and Stan Graner. Their characters control the show’s pace and humor; both actors understand the meaning of acting ‘in the moment’, possess excellent comic timing and play to each other as only real pros can. Audience members can’t keep themselves from falling in love with serious June and her musical spoons and the befuddled, kind-hearted Reverend Oglethorpe whose well-intentioned, infamous attempts to master cooking mark him as a man in definite need of a capable wife.

One Thirty Productions’ A Sanders Family Christmas sold out almost all performances before it opened, proving that audiences follow good theater, even when its curtain time is at 1:30pm. On the national scene, 2010 marks the 12th year Marietta Georgia’s Theatre in the Square has made A Sanders Family Christmas its holiday offering, and it was the winner of Huntsville, Alabama’s 2010 Wings Award for Best Musical. Miss it in Dallas this year? Maybe One Thirty Productions will bring it back again in 2011.

One Thirty Productions’ performances take place at the Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive, with this show’s final performance on Saturday, December 18. For reservations and additional information about One Thirty’s 2011 season, call 214-532-1709.  Visit www.bathhousecultural.com

A Sanders Family Christmas is written by Connie Ray and conceived by Alan Bailey, with musical arrangements by John Foley and Gary Fagin. Set Design by Larry Randolph, Costumes by Marty Van Kleeck, Light Design by Jason Moody and Sound by Graeme Bice.

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