Sanders Family Christmas (Review)

Familiar Playhouse holiday show is still smokin'

Sometimes those with the least to offer bestow the greatest gifts. Ask O. Henry or Charlie Brown — or Jesus himself (born in a barn).

No wonder the best performance in Sanders Family Christmas comes from the one character who supposedly has no talent for music: June (Tess Hartman), the plain, non-singing daughter of the Sanders clan, who were celebrity guests on Christmas Eve 1941 at the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. (“I sign,” June explains with earnest, ridiculous gestures. More irony: No one in the tiny congregation is deaf.)

We’ve warmed these pews before. The Playhouse is a longtime disciple of the Sanders Family franchise, created by Alan Bailey (who also directed this production, adequately) with writer Connie Ray.

But even if you’ve never met the Sanders, you’ve heard their music. And most of their jokes. There’s comfort in that familiarity, something especially welcome at holiday time.

There’s a sad resonance, too, in the show’s dedication to “the brave men and women in our armed forces who serve here and abroad,” a program note printed before the shocking events at Fort Hood. When Burl, the family’s mild-mannered patriarch, recalls a night in the trenches of the Great War, we hear our own fathers telling war stories. As son Dennis prepares to join a new battle (it’s 18 days after Pearl Harbor), we pray for those of the current generation who’ve done the same.

Most of the evening, though, is given over to laughter and song — so we can’t help but wish these Sanders really did sing, as June says, like angels. The cast accompanies itself ably, but (on opening night at least) some vocals were less than divine. Maybe Bailey doesn’t want them to be; after all, these are the Sanders not the Carters, and the Little Drummer Boy was no Buddy Rich.

On the other hand, it’s Christmas. Give us a miracle.

SANDERS FAMILY CHRISTMAS: MORE SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Dec. 31. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get theater details here.

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