Mostly a gospel bluegrass celebration of the season, the musical is set on December 24, 1941. It has been a short three weeks since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina is celebrating one last Christmas before the newly enlisted and the drafted load the buses and ship off to war. With heavy hearts hoping for the safe return of all the soldiers, an evening of song, humor, and witnessing takes the audience on a journey through the importance of Christmas and the true reasons for the season.
Joey Watkins directs the cast, creating a completely believable experience for the audience. Each member of the cast delivers their witness and songs with tangible conviction. The whole experience feels more like actually attending a service at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church than attending a theatrical event, especially with the doses of encouraged audience participation that are sprinkled throughout the performance. With a run time of just under two and half hours, with the intermission included, it does feel a little long, but the talent on the stage keeps the audience interested throughout the entire show.
Gerry Poland’s musical direction is fantastic. Each member of the Sanders Family plays instruments to accompany their performances, many of which are not standards in Texas’ folk music. It is surprising that members of the cast play the mandolin, banjo, and dulcimer so well. Seeing these authentic bluegrass instruments being used to create authentic bluegrass music on stage was a true highlight of the performance. Likewise, he has coached the cast to sing beautifully throughout the show. At the performance I attended, the groups tuning (both voices and instruments) on “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella” did seem a little off though.
Kevin Dean’s Pastor Oglethorpe keeps the show moving from song to song and from scene to scene. He utilizes a strong sense of comedic timing to keep the show as light hearted as possible, despite the heavy overtones of war. In the presence of such a faith rattling occurrence, his mirth and cheer keeps both the audience, as congregation, and the Sanders family going. Likewise, he consistently provides valued insight into why we must celebrate the season with the help from the matriarch and patriarch of the Sanders family.
Katharine Hatcher’s June Sanders is priceless and comedic. Her sign language is spot on and timed perfectly to the music, but it is her humorously overwrought facial expressions as she signs or plays percussion that easily keeps the audience delighted and giggling.
The other members of the Sanders family, Gerry Poland as Burl, Shondra Marie as Vera, Craig Griffin as Stanley, Robert Price as Dennis, and Sarah Cooksey as Denise, are all well played and fully realized characters. Each actor and actress brings a realistic life to their assigned role and fleshes them out accordingly. Each character is distinct and facing unique struggles and burdens. As previously mentioned, they all excel at providing their own accompaniment as well. Whether sharing heartrending testimony or filling the audience’s spirit with joy as they sing, each of these talented people earns every ounce of applause the audience gives them.
Scenic Deisgn by Douglas Gettel and Scenery Construction by Mark A. Lewis, Robin Gillock, Jesse Merril, Trisha Wise, and Makayle Alexander are fantastic. This team has perfectly captured the look and feel of a small 1940s Baptist Church. Every detail is attended to and looks pristine in presentation.
Lighting Design is simplistic and effective. Lights dim down when testimony is given, causing all focus to rest on the speaking character. Lights come back up for songs. The audience is lit when audience participation is expected and when the cast leaves the stage to interact with the audience. At the very end of the second act, the light behind the upstage stained-glass window with the cross went out for no apparent reason. This was a noticeable change in the lighting schema but did not detract from the performance. [NOTE: I have been informed the light going out was caused by the bulb burning out, and it is not part of the lighting design.]