The Sanders Family lands in the right hands.

With Bells On 

The Sanders Family lands in the right hands.

If there's a theater on the other side, there is a good chance The Sanders Family would be the biggest hit on the pearly gates circuit. In the sanctuary of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve 1941 (just 18 days after Pearl Harbor), the title characters make up a show-business family whose agent could be only the good Lord. They're fond of quoting scripture and shouting out "amen" and "hallelujah" as punctuation marks. It's the kind of proselytizing that normally would set my teeth on edge.

But I cannot deny that this fictitious clan is pumped full of passion. Its members know a good country song when they hear it ("country" that's less Faith Hill than hillbilly), have a sense of humor that belies their fundamentalism, and can deliver a seasonal hymn that would send the stiffest agnostic into something just short of spiritual rebirth. There are moments in the show that feel akin to getting smacked with a hardback copy of the New Testament, but the inarguable talent of the company eases the sting.

Director Richard Carrothers so trusts the material -- written and conceived by Connie Ray and Alan Bailey as a sequel to their Smoke on the Mountain -- that there's little else to do but let the actors fly. A less inspired director might have been tempted to embellish the script or the characters with superfluous stage business -- as if the Christian coating of many colors were too embarrassing to present straight-faced -- but that approach would have only weakened the essence of the show, leaving the carcass of a split personality. Without apologizing or second-guessing, Carrothers exposes clean family entertainment for what it can be in the right hands: "clean" as in no fussiness and "family entertainment" as in something so pure as to be ingratiating.

Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe (Jim Korinke) opens the show as if the audience were a congregation yanked from whatever Christmas Eve plans its members might have had instead of an evening of evangelism (though one doubts there would be any plans other than evangelism in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina). In short order, the quasi-recording-stars of the title enter the church, shake off the snow, and prepare to give the people in the house what they paid for.

The patriarch is Burl Sanders (Gary Holcombe), a quiet rock in the vein of a Gary Cooper town marshal. His wife, Vera (Debra Bluford), is large of heart and body and possesses a deep belief that laughter is good medicine. Their eldest daughter, June (Lori Blalock), may not be gifted with social skills but is perhaps the most effortlessly talented. The twins, Denise (Melanie Mays) and Dennis (B. Hayden Oliver), have agendas that would threaten to cause many a parent's sleepless nights, yet carry them out with intentions that are wholly admirable. And Uncle Stanley (Jeff Martin) has returned home from being a sideman in a cowboy musical, the career he fell into after a stint in the slammer.

The authors give each character enough subtext to call forth strategically placed monologues. A couple of them, such as Bluford's deft weave of Jesus and Santa Claus with a little moral thrown in, are meant to provoke laughs, while others -- Holcombe's haunting tale of being on the front lines during World War I, for example -- can't help but target other emotions. (Knowing Holcombe did a stint in Vietnam makes the scene even more poignant.) The latter stories play rather sincerely here, whereas they would drip with saccharine if left to the likes of Steven Spielberg.

The Sanders Family improves as it unfolds simply as a result of the range of dexterous musicianship. To a person, the actors do double duty on piano, guitars, banjos, fiddles, and stand-up bass. Mays solos on accordion, and Blalock is the queen of percussion; she provides the sound effects for "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and is adorned with bells on every limb while clenching a duck whistle in her jaws for Dolly Parton's "With Bells On." And their harmonies (thanks to arrangements by John Foley and Gary Fagin) would make a barbershop quartet weak with envy.

Gregory Hill's set is a warm and tactile melange of wood and stained glass that wouldn't be out of place in an alpine resort. Randy Winder's lighting doesn't vary much, but if it was his idea to blow a fuse and have the cast sing "Away in a Manger" with four candles, kudos to him. Mary Traylor's detailed costume design is folksy and modest without any condescension to the Appalachian corner stores where they might be found.

For all its relentless religion, The Sanders Family is spared from treacle by its religious devotion to the basic elements of any good musical -- winning songs shot through with heart and soul.


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